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Game 48 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-14-1) vs. the Florida Panthers (21-20-8)

The Last Devils Game: In a word: Awful. Steve has the recap of the 4-0 beatdown the New York Islanders put on the Devils on Monday afternoon.

The Last Panthers Game: OK, it's the Florida Panthers and the Atlanta Thrashers, two teams not known for their defense. So what to do they do? Defend! Both teams were held to under 30 shots a piece, well below their current team averages this season. Tomas Vokoun was superior in shutting out the Thrashers and Gregory Campbell was the lone man to beat Johan Hedberg. Florida wins 1-0, their third straight game. Whale4ever at The Litter Box Cats has the recap, rightfully praising Vokoun.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: The Devils and Panthers are tied at 1-1 in the season series. Back on December 11, the Panthers came out strong at the Rock, stayed strong, and played all 60 of those 60 minutes that are played in a game of hockey. It may be a cliche, but that doesn't make it false. The Panthers earned their win in decisive fashion, 4-2. That was the summary of the game in my opinion. For the Florida side, Litter Box Cats praised Michael Frolik's brace and Scott Clemmensen's general play.

The Goal: I wrote about some common problems and disturbing trends over the last three losses by the Devils. The goal should be for the Devils to actually, you know, address them and prevent them from happening for a fourth game. Oh, and playing for all 60 minutes would help. It made the difference the last time these two teams played anyway. Do you need a shorter summary? I can do that. Devils: do the exact opposite of what you "did" on Monday.

Check out Litter Box Cats if you want to know more about the Florida Panthers. Read on for my further thoughts on tonight's game.

As reported yesterday by Tom Gulitti, Patrik Elias has been diagnosed with concussion symptoms - not a concussion per se, just symptoms of one - and he will not play tonight. He's been put on IR so he's out until next Tuesday. Again, his presence will be missed because he is such a gifted player. That said, it's not as if the Devils require him to win. Just look back at October and the early part of November if you need that. Besides, I'd rather have the Devils be so cautious with this diagnosis now rather than risk a much more serious injury later on.

What strikes me are the recent call ups. Before Gulitti posted the quotes from Lou confirming Elias' status, Gulitti reported that Matthew Corrente was sent down to Lowell and Patrick Davis and Nick Palmieri were called up. This is interesting in two ways. First, this leaves the Devils with six defensemen. So if Jacques Lemaire wants to get them to shape up, the only thing he can do is A) switch pairings around and B) light a fire under them to play smarter more often. Second, the Devils called up two wingers despite having Andrew Peters and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond as healthy scratches. Did management and the coaches look at this group and decide, "Yep, let's try out some more kids?" Maybe they figured a new face could bring some energy to the ice? Davis has had only one game up in New Jersey in his short career, and Lowell rookie Palmieri has yet to make his NHL debut. Surely, they'll want to make their case for a future in New Jersey if either plays, right?

2009 - Patrick Davis (Lowell) 44 12 16 28 1 24 4 1 86 13.9
2009 - Nick Palmieri (Lowell) 41 15 11 26 -6 18 3 0 84 17.8

Let's be realistic, I doubt either will make a big impact (will both even play?), but expect them to hustle like Vladimir Zharkov because, hey, this is an opportunity with them. Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston, and, yes, I'm including him, Nicklas Bergfors will still be the forwards that have to provide some actual goal support. Like scoring the first goal, scoring power play goals (can I hope for this, please?), and generally keeping the Devils in the hunt. I think Martin Brodeur will start again because I don't think the losing streak is really on him (I believe it's the lack of goals and defensive intelligence). I doubt Yann Danis is really the answer to this team's problems, no matter how many people on the Internet say so while whining about Brodeur being 37 years old. The goal for today is to get a W regardless.

This all said, I'm going to wildly guess at this lineup:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - Niclas Bergfors
Jay Pandolfo - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov
Patrick Davis - Rod Pelley - Nick Palmieri

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Johnny Oduya - Mark Fraser

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

And as usual, I expect to be wrong on this. Hence, it's a wild guess.

Now, once again, the Devils will face an opponent who has been quite good recently with 3 straight wins, who wants to use this game to make a statement about their own aspirations (2 points behind 8th place Islanders), and features a very talented goaltender.

2009 - Tomas Vokoun 39 2304 16 14 96 2.50 1319 1223 .927 5

Of course, head coach Peter DeBoer is going to start him again - as confirmed by Steve Gorten of the Sun-Sentinal (h/t Litter Box Cats). Why wouldn't he? He's coming off a 1-0 shutout win over Atlanta. New Jersey's not going to worry him one bit.

This team is feeling good and if the Devils want to start off slowly yet again, then it could be another ugly loss. Florida's defense has been suspect over the whole season, they have the league's highest shots against average with 34.4 per game. Of course, take that with a grain of salt because they held Atlanta to only 27 shots on Monday. Also, they're becoming healthier. Gorten reports that Stephen Weiss and Dimitri Kulikov might be able to play tonight depending on Wednesday morning's skate goes. Weiss returning would be a big boost because he's having a big season along with Nathan Horton.

2009 - Nathan Horton 49 16 29 45 2 32 6 1 3 0 124 12.9
2009 - Stephen Weiss 48 19 23 42 -5 18 7 0 1 0 101 18.8

I was able to ask Whale4Ever of Litter Box Cats about the Panthers in general. Thanks to him for his responses. Mind you, the questions were sent prior to Florida's 1-0 win over Atlanta. So the Panthers are in 11th right now and some other stats were updated.

Question #1. The Florida Panthers may have been sitting in 12th before Monday's game against Atlanta, but they are only a few points behind that all important eighth place spot in the Eastern Conference? With a few recent wins, are the Panthers in a position to make a realistic playoff run?

WE: Of course. The conference is again tight, and a slide by any of the current bubble teams - of which Florida is one - could quickly alter the destiny of each. The Panthers lost out on last year's postseason by a single shootout loss to Montreal; that's the definition of "close". The possibility of the Cats going on an über-hot streak exists as well. Is it likely? I'll get back to you, but it sure would have been easier without the long-term losses of David Booth, Cory Stillman, and Dmitri Kulikov.

Question #2. Two players on the Panthers who has surprised me are Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss. After a few decent seasons of production, Horton is 20th in the NHL in scoring prior to Monday's games, and Weiss leads the team in goals (19) and is just 3 points behind Horton with 42 points. Both players are on pace to set career highs in points, how have they improved this season to be this productive?

WE: In Weiss' case (a game-day decision for tonight) I'm of the belief he was simply due; the last three seasons are evidence: 42 points in 07-08, 61 points in 08-09, and 42 in the current year which places him on pace for a ballpark of 80. No one's declaring him the next Yzerman, but his game has elevated so far so quickly that it's now unrealistic to expect less than Number One Center stats out of him. As for Horton, everyone's got an opinion down here, but in my opinion he's finally comfortable with his role. Helps being back at your spot on the wing, too.

Question #3. Tomas Vokoun has been excellent in net for the Panthers this season. He almost has as the Panthers allowed an average of 34.4 shots per game - the highest in the league. Vokoun's talent isn't in doubt, but what can the defense do to help him out?

WE: They can replicate their effort from Monday night! 27 shots were allowed against him, which is seriously sick for this club. Played out over the past weeks and months, the defense isn't a bunch of no-names nor are they non-committal about their position, so it's tough to grasp just how - given the turnover on "D" in recent years - they continue to allow so much rubber to reach the goaltender. Back to Vokoun: if he can see it, he can stop it, and that was the deal on Monday against Atlanta, as it has been a number of times recently.

Question #4. While recent Devils losses started off by putting two goals past Martin Brodeur in the first period by way of deflections and exposing mistakes by the Devils' defense, would scoring first really help the Panthers? They have the second worst winning percentage when scoring first at .453. What's up with that?

WE: As most loyal Panthers fans will tell you, they don't feel safe when scoring first. Or scoring second. Or carrying a lead into any period. It's really been a confounding, confusing year. The only pattern any of us have safely put money on was that the Cats would blow a two goal lead in just about any game during any situation. Recent games have spotlighted an extra focus on work along the boards and simple confidence. Both have paid off of late.

Question #5. Lastly, how do you think the Devils-Panthers game will play out?

WE: Asking for a prediction on a game involving the home team coming off its worst loss (PR-wise [JF note: Nope, I'd say in general, only shutout loss]) of the season, eh? Personally I'd rather the Cats were playing just about anywhere else. Thanks, Isles. Tough to make a call on which Florida team will emerge; never been more than a few games in a stretch where they've been consistent in more than a few areas. I will say this: Horton and Michael Frolik have been quiet behind the recent heroics of Rostislav Olesz and Gregory Campbell, so I'm going with them to provide some road rage. No matter who scores, the defense is going to have to circle their wagon. As always.

Again, big thanks to Whale4Ever. So, how should the Devils approach this game outside of not giving up two goals and floundering power play after power play? I suggest crashing the net. Even in the 1-0 win over Atlanta, the Thrashers put 14 shots on Vokoun and took the game right to the Panthers. It almost seemed like Florida was playing like they needed Vokoun to do well - and he did. I'm not just calling for shots on Vokoun, but close-range shots, shots that make rebounds and of course, screens. If Vokoun plays out of his mind, then fine; but even a fantastic goaltender isn't going be able to stop every rebound or deflection or point-blank shots on his flank. Like Whale4Ever said, if he can see it, he can stop it; so the Devils should try to make sure he doesn't see it in time or at all.

Again, those are some cliches, and I'm sorry for that. But that doesn't mean they are bad ideas or entirely incorrect. All the same, it can't get worse than the performance the Devils plopped on the ice on Long Island. Right? I hope?

Steve will have a GameThread up closer to game time. I will be at the game, commenting sparsely from my phone in my usual seat in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5. Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, and news updates in the comments prior to the GameThread. Semper Jersey, Go Devils!