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Game 55 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

The Time: 1:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (31-19-4) vs. the Florida Panthers (25-17-11)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils took on the St. Louis Blues for the only time this season at the Rock on Thursday. Both teams played a fairly even, brisk game of hockey. The Devils ended up only ahead in shots by one after regulation and overtime. The attempts at even strength were about even. St. Louis equalized not long after Zach Parise scored a power play goal in the first period to end it 1-1. The Blues went up 2-1 early in the second but that lead didn't last when Adam Henrique slid a shot to the far post and in to make it 2-2. The Devils appeared to break through when Patrik Elias finished off a give-and-go with Ilya Kovalchuk to make it 3-2 in the second period; which sent Jaroslav Halak to the bench and Brian Elliott in the relief. The Devils had several opportunities to get a fourth goal only to be denied by Elliott or inaccuracy. The Devils kept the Blues honest through the third period and killed off a major penalty; but Patrik Berglund equalized by deflecting a floating puck from Roman Polak past Johan Hedberg. The goal stood after review; and the even nature of the game continued on until the shootout. There, the Blues took it with one goal as all three Devils shooters failed to score. The Devils' five game winning streak was snapped with a 4-3 shootout loss. In my recap, I explained why I wasn't torn up about it among other thoughts.

The Last Panthers Game: While the Devils were doing battle with St. Louis, the Panthers were facing off against the Los Angeles Kings. It wasn't always pretty, it was quite defensive (Florida had 11 shots after the first two periods, 14 for LA) at times, but the home team Panthers got the job done. The scoring opened in the second period when Sean Bergenheim finished off a pass from Marcel Goc. Florida doubled their lead when Mike Santorelli beat Jonathan Quick late in the second. LA changed goaltenders in the third period in the hopes of looking for a spark, but there wasn't much of one. Florida actually out-shot LA in the third 12-9. The Kings would get on the board late when Drew Doughty hammered in a shot from distance with less than 2:30 left to play. Any hopes of a dramatic comeback were dashed when Matt Bradley iced the game with an empty net goal. The Panthers won 3-1 and are temporarily back on top of the Southeast Division. John Beatty has a recap of the game over at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: Back in the first week of January, the Devils hosted the Panthers for the first time this season. The January 6 contest was the 1,000th of Patrik Elias' career and the lifetime Devil had a wonderful night. He went up against Florida's top line and clearly succeeded in possession. He drew two penalties, scored the Devils' second goal, set up the eventual game winning goal by Ilya Kovalchuk, and he picked up a second assist on Zach Parise's empty net goal - the second of the game for New Jersey. Elias was awesome. Also, that wasn't a typo, the Devils really did score two empty net goals in a 5-2 win. It was a tight game for 59 minutes but that final minute just flattered the Devils. My recap of the game is right here. As for an opposition's point of view, Ryan Meier has this recap over at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal: Stop the Panthers' top line - again. According to Greek mythology and several video games, a cerberus was a three-headed fearsome beast. The Panthers have such a beast: their top forward line of Kris Versteeg (20 G, 25 A), Tomas Fleischmann (17 G, 22 A), and Stephen Weiss (13 G, 25 A). They lead the team in scoring as well as in getting shots on net. Fleischmann and Versteeg both lead the Panthers in shots on net with 139 and 133, respectively; while Weiss isn't too shabby at 97. According to Behind the Net, they both play a lot at evens, they face strong competition, and they have been great at getting the puck forward. While the Panthers are more than just these three forwards, it would be to New Jersey's benefit to neutralize them as much as possible. The Devils succeeded in doing so back in January. Can they do it a second time and without the line of Petr Sykora, Elias, and Dainius Zubrus matched against them? I suspect it'll be Elias, Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk getting that match up; can they quell the cerberus? We shall see this afternoon.

I have more thoughts on today's game after the jump; please check out Litter Box Cats for a Panthers perspective for this game.

The Devils will have mostly the same lineup from the St. Louis game for this matinee game against Florida. The only change as of Friday will be in net. Tom Gulitti reported on Friday that Martin Brodeur will get start in net for the Devils. That his twisted ankle is not going to prevent him from playing is good news; it truly was a minor injury. Moreover, Brodeur has been playing rather well over the last two weeks against a desperate Montreal team, a strong Pittsburgh team, and two tough games against the Rangers - earning a shutout in the most recent game. Brodeur's good to go and in good form. This is good.

All of the forwards and defensemen will be active for this game. Kurtis Foster received a major penalty and a game misconduct for his hit on Chris Porter, but Tom Gulitti reported on Friday that he will receive no further discipline. The cut on Porter's head led to the severe penalty and the NHL figured that was enough in terms of punishment. Therefore, Foster will play today. I wonder whether we'll see him paired with Matt Taormina again. Peter DeBoer saw the two third pairing defensemen struggle against the Blues and split them up during the game to some success. Foster got paired with Andy Greene whereas Taormina was moved to play with Mark Fayne. Maybe he'll stick with it for today's game? Maybe he'll revert back and just try and protect the Foster-Taormina as best as possible?

Either way, I'm looking for Foster to have a better game. I know he wasn't acquired for very much and he doesn't play a lot of minutes; but he does need to be decent on the shifts he does get. This means I want him in position, not shadowing his partner's assignment, and to not lose focus occasionally - the same goes for Taormina, too. The rest of the defense beyond those two have been fine and I just hope they play a smart game.

Offensively, I'd like to see the offense get more involved. On Thursday, few Devils had big shooting nights against the Blues, quite possibly the best defensive team in the league. Florida isn't so strong on defense. They have a 5-on-5 SA/60 rate of 30.2; and they're just about average when it comes to Fenwick% in close score and tied situations. The Devils, in theory, should be able to get quite a lot of rubber on net. Against St. Louis, Kovalchuk played like a boss; Parise and Elias were bombing away and extended their point streak to seven games; and Adam Henrique and David Clarkson also teed up a lot of shots on net. I'd like to see those players go from strength to strength - especially Kovalchuk, who will likely shoot better than 4-for-12, and get a lot of shots on net. I think they will, but I'd like to see some more from other forwards like Alexei Ponikarovsky, Dainius Zubrus, Petr Sykora, and Steve Bernier. While they weren't bad and they contributed in other ways, they still didn't get much on net. If they can join in the offense and get some shooting opportunities on top of winning pucks and getting the puck forward, then the Devils will be that more threatening on offense.

Switching to the Panthers, they're kind of banged up at this juncture. They're without important players like defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and goaltender Jakob Markstrom are out with knee problems. They're missing useful forwards like Jack Skille (shoulder), Scottie Upshall (hernia), and Marco Sturm (knee). Even the Jovocop, Ed Jovanovski, is out with injury. It's not all bad news for Florida. They're starting to get some players back. Marcel Goc has returned and he's been a big help at forward. According to Behind the Net, he's faced tough competition at even strength this season and he's come out ahead. Sean Bergenheim is also available and he's been a good guy behind the top line to get the play going forward. The two join a support cast that includes forwards who are good in Corsi but aren't all that productive (Michal Repik, Evgeny Dadonov) and forwards who have been productive but haven't done so well in possession (Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias) based on their team's production at and Behind the Net.

The next Panther to return to action looks to be goaltender Jose Theodore. He's expected to get a start in one of Florida's games this weekend according to Harvey Fialkov of the Miami Sun-Sentinel. Theodore has been out since the beginning of February, his return could be today. And if not, then it'll likely be on Sunday and Scott Clemmensen will face the Devils.

2011-12 - Jose Theodore 31 1753 14 9 5 73 2.50 871 798 .916 2
2011-12 - Scott Clemmensen 20 1087 9 4 5 49 2.70 545 496 .910 1

Scott Clemmensen hasn't been bad; but the return of Theodore would certainly be welcomed. He's been a driver of the team's 92.3% save percentage in 5-on-5 play this season (one of the better ones in the league) with his 92.9% even strength save percentage. Should he return against New Jersey, let's hope it'll take him a while to get back into the swing of things.

While the Florida defense certainly isn't dominant and they are weaker without Kulikov, there are a few players to be aware of for tonight's game. First, there's Brian Campbell. He plays a ton of minutes (ATOI: 26:03) and he's very productive. Campbell has 3 goals and 34 assists, good for the fourth highest point total among defensemen in the NHL. Campbell may not always face the toughs, but Jason Garrison usually does while playing his own fair share of ice time (ATOI: 23:50). Garrison's shot is notoriously hard, heavy, and fast. It's also successful as he has 13 goals, the most among all defensemen in the NHL. He usually gets them on net, too, as he's got the third most shots on net on the team with 113. The Devils wingers focused on the points will have to be wary when either of them are on the ice. Campbell and Garrison are the only regulars on the Florida blueline that pushes the play forward according to Behind the Net. They are two-way threats at a minimum.

In terms of the rest of the group, the top Devils forwards will likely see a good amount of Mike Weaver, usually starting in his own end of the rink. Yet, he's not a player who has driven the play forward regularly for Florida. Neither can the rest of their defense. The Devils, in theory, should be able to challenge Clemmensen or Theodore early and often.

They may be able to do so on the power play tonight. OK, the Devils aren't becoming a power play powerhouse anytime soon. However, they have went 6-for-20 over the last five games. Moreover, Florida's SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations is pretty high at 53.8. The Devils power players should be able to get some good looks. Plus, the Panthers only have a success rate of 80.5%, which is in the bottom third of the league. The Florida penalty kill isn't much of a threat, even if the Devils did allow two shorthanded goals against them earlier this season. At the same time, the Devils need to be wary of their own discipline. The Florida power play has been pretty good this season. Their conversion rate is an above-average 18.5%; and their SF/60 rate in 5-on-4 situations is 49.4 with a shooting percentage of 12.6%, which are both above average. That power play is led by, who else, Florida's top three forwards: Versteeg (6 PPG, 9 PPA), Fleischmann (5 PPG, 10 PPA), and Weiss (4 PPG, 8 PPA). Campbell (1 PPG, 22 PPA) has been incredibly productive in setting up goals; and Garrison (8 PPG, 1 PPA) leads them in power play goals Kulikov's absence hurts again as he has been a productive member of that side of special teams with 2 PPG and 8 PPA. Still, that's a tough group of five players for any PK to stop. Should the Devils get silly with their fouls and/or the ref calls a tight game, then even the Devils' penalty kill will be put to the test.

I have one final note: today's game will be the last time these two teams will play each other in the regular season. While the Panthers currently lead the division and the Devils are above eighth place, these two teams are in direct competition for points until the end of the season. There's way too much hockey left to play to start ruling out competitors in the standings. I expect the Panthers to come out with a purpose. They beat a good LA team at home and they know a win helps their cause. The Panthers need results to keep ahead of Washington and to give themselves a cushion should they fall out of first in the Southeast Division. In their eyes, this is game carries some weight. Hopefully, the Devils will respond in kind and come out strong and finish strong (read: no third period flops) in regulation. They've been fairly good of at least taking the first two periods seriously and playing well over the last few games; I just don't want to see a let down after a shootout loss to a very good St. Louis team.

While that's my take on the game, I am interested in your take. Who on the Panthers concerns you the most going into this game? Do you think the Devils will respond well after their shootout loss to St. Louis? Who on the Devils do you think will have a big game? Which Devils skater needs to have a big game? Do you think Brodeur will keep up his good play as of late? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.