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Game 80 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers

The Time: 7:30 PM EDT/4:30 PM PDT

The Broadcast: TV: MSG (HD); Radio: 1130 AM WBBR

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (46-26-7) at the Florida Panthers (31-36-12)

The Last Devils Game: Was it a dominating performance? No. They battled the Atlanta Thrashers back and forth for the first two periods, while putting together a goal in each period. Travis Zajac scored roughly 10-11 seconds into the third period and the Thrashers just gave up. The Devils won 3-0, Martin Brodeur picked up his 110th shutout and 600th career win, and Atlanta was eliminated from the playoffs. Here is my recap of that game.

The Last Panthers Game: In a game noted for a horrible blunder by Keith Ballard, the Florida Panthers lost to the Ottawa Senators 4-2. As you may expect from the score, not much went right for the Panthers. But Donny Rivette of Litter Box Cats pointed out a few players who did OK in his recap.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: Way back on January 20, 2010, the Devils putting up a win was very welcomed. It did snap a then-three game losing streak. The Devils hosted the Panthers and defeated them 2-0. Actually, the second goal was an empty net goal; so the Devils put up a 1-0 lead during the second and held on. Not bad as it was in the middle of (in hindsight) a bad stretch of hockey for New Jersey, with several goals helped out by their own defense. Travis Zajac scored with Nick Palmieri picking up his first NHL point; Dean McAmmond got the empty net goal to seal it; Tomas Vokoun stopped 31 of 32 shots and the Panthers in front of him never really supported him. I recapped the game here; a short, to-the-point recap by Donny Rivette of Litter Box Cats can be found here. The Devils are 2-1 against the Panthers this season.

The Goal: Avoid the trap game - come out fighting. That the Devils put up shutout wins over Carolina and Atlanta on the road were impressive on their own. In the bigger picture, though, I feel the best accomplishment about both games was that the Devils didn't play down to their level. Well, here comes the spoiler tonight, the final road opponent of the regular season: the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have nothing but potential draft position and pride to play for - and Florida head coach Peter DeBoer's not a fan of playing for a draft spot. Are the Panthers a bad team? Yes. Will they shock the Devils if/when Tomas Vokoun plays as well as he does and their youth carry the water on offense and defense? Only if they aren't prepared.

Say what you will about the Islanders, but at least that's (somewhat) of a rivalry and it's at home. The last game of the season against Buffalo can be important with respect to playoff seeding for both teams. This game, however, doesn't carry much extra motivation. It's great that Jacques Lemaire thinks the team can do better - let's hope he'll set higher expectations for tonight. Otherwise, we could see a letdown in Sunrise.

Check out Litter Box Cats for Florida-based opinions about tonight's game later on. Please read on after the jump for my additional thoughts on tonight's game.

One of the biggest causes for concern that I have for tonight rests on one player: Tomas Vokoun.

2009 - Tomas Vokoun 63 3695 23 28 157 2.55 2081 1924 .925 7

At From the Rink, Derek Zona tipped as his choice for the Vezina based on save percentage alone. While I'm not so quick to say he's been the best goaltender in the NHL in 2009-10; he really is one of the best in the league. It's clear that Florida's problems have absolutely nothing to do with him. Vokoun has been a prolific shot stopper in spite of a defense that allows 34.0 shots per game, the highest average in the NHL. Per George Richards of On Frozen Pond, he'll play tonight. I'm sure Panthers fans share Richards' hope that Vokoun won't be left on an island tonight. Whatever help he can get would be greatly obliged, as I feel the Devils' biggest challenge - on offense and in the game - will be in figuring out Vokoun.

As far as the rest of the Panthers go, I'm not sure what to make of it. Other than hoping Jacques Lemaire sends forward after forward out there to aggressively pressure Keith Ballard, I suppose. Incidentally, Florida defender Bryan Allen will be expected to return tonight from a rib injury, per George Richards of On Frozen Pond. He's more of a defensive defenseman, but I wonder how he'll do along the boards upon his return. Even without the injury, I'd like to see the Devils' offense attack Vokoun as much as possible with shots - given their track record this season, the Panthers' D will do just that.

Whereas Lemaire thinks the Devils could do better; according to this post by George Richards of On Frozen Pond, DeBoer's take on his team is positive about the youth but not so much with the veterans. This quote comes after their 4-2 loss to Ottawa:

"The good news is our young guys were our best players,'' said coach Pete DeBoer. "What's bad is we need the veterans to play better. I would expect some of these veterans to be playing for jobs too. They don't realize the situation they are in if they don't think they are playing for their jobs. For me, going through what we're going through and the season we're going through, we're evaluating everyone.''

One of whom was Evgeny Dadonov, who made his NHL debut. Per Donny's recap, he was playing on the same line with Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss, two of Florida's leading scorers. While Weiss and Horton aren't unknown, I wonder how he'll fit in his second game. By virtue of Weiss' and Horton's numbers, I would think they should command the most focus from the Devils' defense tonight.

2009 - Stephen Weiss 77 27 31 58 -8 38 11 0 2 0 15.7
2009 - Nathan Horton 62 18 34 52 -2 40 7 1 3 0 11.9

As for the Devils, short of any gameday decisions, I'd honestly expect a full lineup. Tom Gulitti has this quote from Jacques Lemaire on who he doesn't want rest:

"There’s certain guys that you know I won’t (rest)," Lemaire said. "I’d love to give a rest to Whitey (Colin White) as an example. He’s been playing a lot and he’s been playing really hard for us. But, he’s a big guy and the big guys they can’t take a lot. The big guys have a lot of energy. They’re strong. The guy I would like to give a rest is Zach (Parise), but I don’t want to affect the team either. (Ilya Kovalchuk) is a big guy. He doesn’t need a rest."

Per Gulitti, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias didn't practice on Wednesday, so I suppose they got their rest today then. They should be available and in the lineup tonight. With Mike Mottau sitting out against Atlanta, I'm confident he'll return tonight. Mark Fraser should sit for Mottau. I really like how the fourth line played in Atlanta, so I hope that means Rod Pelley, Dean McAmmond, and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond will get another game together. With the regular season end literally coming in 4 days, I think now is a good of a time as any to just have the full lineup play out the season and only tweak lines as Lemaire sees fit.

Of course, I could be dead wrong on gameday. So keep up with Gulitti and Rich Chere during the day for updates. Still, here's my wild guess at tonight's lineup:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Dainius Zubrus
Ilya Kovalchuk - Patrik Elias - David Clarkson
Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - Jamie Langenbrunner
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Dean McAmmond - Rod Pelley

Paul Martin - Martin Skoula
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

As an aside, given that Ilya Kovalchuk didn't have a good performance on Tuesday and that he actually spent some time with his family on Wednesday (per Chere). I'd keep an eye on him tonight. We know he has the skills to make an impact, now he has a reason to feel good and make one. I'd like the team to make one as a whole, regardless of who does it. I'm just saying that I got a good feeling about Kovalchuk ahead of tonight's game.

Finally, in terms of positioning, the Devils are ahead of Pittsburgh by two points for the division lead and ahead Buffalo by a point for the #2 seed. A win tonight would at least keep this lead, should Buffalo and Pittsburgh win their games tonight. So this game does have reason. But I fear that after two shutout performances, against a team that has little to play for, and in the final regular season road game, the Devils may not be up for this one. Let's hope my fears are made to look silly.

The GameThread will be up later tonight. In the meantime, please leave all of your thoughts, questions, concerns, corrections, complaints, feelings, and news updates (with links) in the comments. Go Devils!