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New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers - The 2012 NHL Playoffs Series Preview

It's time for the Devils to get on the road and take on the Florida Panthers. This picture, from the last Carolina game, should be what we all hope to see at the end of many games to come.  Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE
It's time for the Devils to get on the road and take on the Florida Panthers. This picture, from the last Carolina game, should be what we all hope to see at the end of many games to come. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE

The First Round Match-up: The New Jersey Devils (48-28-6, #6) vs. the Florida Panthers (38-26-18, #3)

The Schedule: Based on the playoff schedule from and the TV information reported by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, here is the full first round schedule as of now. (Note: Games with a * are only if necessary to finish the series.)

Game 1 - April 13, 2012 - 7 PM EDT - New Jersey at Florida - TV: MSG+

Game 2 - April 15, 2012 - 7:30 PM EDT - New Jersey at Florida - TV: MSG+

Game 3 - April 17, 2012 - 7 PM EDT - Florida at New Jersey - TV: MSG+

Game 4 - April 19, 2012 - 7 PM EDT - Florida at New Jersey - TV: MSG+

Game 5* - April 21, 2012 - 6:30 PM EDT - New Jersey at Florida - TV: MSG+

Game 6* - April 24, 2012 - TBD - Florida at New Jersey - TV: MSG+

Game 7* - April 26, 2012 - TBD - New Jersey at Florida - TV: MSG+

The Season Series: The Devils went 2-2-0 against the Florida Panthers this season. Here are the recaps of all four games against Florida from both this site and Litter Box Cats, SB Nation's Florida Panthers blog.

November 21, 2011 - Devils 3, Florida 4 - ILWT Recap - LBC Recap

December 13, 2011 - Devils 3, Florida 2 (SO) - ILWT Recap - LBC Recap

January 6, 2012 - Devils 5, Florida 2 - ILWT Recap - LBC Recap

February 11, 2012 - Devils 1, Florida 3 - ILWT Recap - LBC Recap

The SBNation-NHL Series Coverage: The SBN-NHL Storystream for this series is right here at the NHL hub. To kick things off, Travis Hughes asked Ryan Meier of Litter Box Cats and myself five questions about our respective teams. Ryan has his answers in this post for the Florida perspective. As for the Devils' perspective, I gave my responses in this post. Should you want another series preview, Matt Wagner has a good one at the hub.

While not at the hub, Kevin had a few questions for Alex Calloway of Litter Box Cats yesterday.

The News Sources: The main sites for Devils news are Fire & Ice, which is where Bergen Record beat reporter Tom Gulitti reports his news; and, which features beat reporter Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger. You can follow them on Twitter, too: @tgfireandice for Gulitti and @ledger_njdevils for Chere. For the Panthers, the places to visit are On Frozen Pond, which is by George Richards of the Miami Herald; and the Panthers section at the Sun-Sentinel by Harvey Fialkov. They are also on Twitter: @onfrozenpond for Richards and @hfialkov for Fialkov.

The TiqIQ Plug: Seth of TiqIQ let me know that you can purchase tickets for this series directly through TiqIQ at this link. As of right now, there are plenty of seats available on the secondary market for all seven games. Here's a helpful picture for general pricing by game as well.

The ILWT Predictions: I asked the ILWT writers questions about this series and requested predictions yesterday. Check out all of our responses in this post.

The Goal: Just win, baby.

Please continue on after the jump to see an extensive breakdown of both teams by the numbers from this season and by position as well as many other additional opinions for the series.

Recent Play Before the Playoffs

The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs. They didn't make it in last season. This season, they not only made it in, but they enter this postseason by going 7-2-1 in their last ten games including a six game winning streak. In that winning streak, they displayed their offense against Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Ottawa; they showed they can hang with an elite team in Detroit and shut them down in a one-shot game in the third period; they can get a win they didn't deserve against Chicago; and they can get a result in a meh-contest with the Isles. However, since the series won't start until Friday, I can't really say they're coming in hot since there's a six day gap to dissipate whatever momentum in results they built up.

The Florida Panthers are back in the playoffs. They didn't make it in their last ten seasons. The last time they went to the playoffs, it was in 2000 and they lost to the Devils in five four games. In this season, the Panthers did win the Southeast Division but they didn't obtain it with authority. They were the most successful out of an inconsistent group of teams and they only secured the #3 spot on the last day of the season with a win over Carolina. They went 2-3-5 in their last ten games, true to their way of keeping things close to force post-regulation play. With the long layoff, the Panthers will have ample opportunity to learn from their errors and prepare for the future.

The Offense

As a team, the Devils can boast of having a more successful offense than the Panthers. The Devils are fifteenth in the NHL with 216 goals scored, whereas the Panthers are twenty-seventh with 197. However, 5-on-5 play shows that a closer difference with the Devils only scoring 149 goals and the Panthers getting 138. At least in that situation, the Devils have been shooting at a pretty good rate of 8.5%. The Panthers have been held back a bit by a below-average 7.2% shooting percentage. This Devils team is definitely not snake-bit like last season's squad.

They're also not at all a bad possession team. In terms of close-score Fenwick% (even strength shots and misses for over even strength shots and misses against when the score within one goal in the first two periods and tied in the third and overtime periods), the Devils are tenth in the NHL at 51.08%. The Panthers haven't been bad either, their Fenwick% of 50.35 is thirteenth in the NHL.

The Panthers can claim superiority in generating shots both at even strength and on the power play. In all situations, the Panthers have averaged 29.7 shots per game, which places them fifteenth in the NHL. The Devils are stuck in twenty-seventh at only 27.5 shots per game. It gets worse in 5-on-5 play. The Devils are only better than Minnesota in shots for per 60 minutes (SF/60) at 26.7, while the Panthers are closer to league average at 28.6. In 5-on-4 situations, the Devils have improved during the season but still rank in the bottom third of the league with a SF/60 of 45.2. The Panthers have been above average in SF/60 with 48.8 and their conversion rate is the seventh best in the NHL at 18.5%.

Here's a quick look at the top three scorers for both teams:

2011-12 - Ilya Kovalchuk 77 37 46 83 -9 33 10 3 5 310 11.5
2011-12 - Patrik Elias 81 26 52 78 -8 16 8 2 3 164 15.9
2011-12 - Zach Parise 82 31 38 69 -5 32 7 3 3 293 10.6

The Devils are led on offense by Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, and Zach Parise. All three finished in the top 25 in league scoring and Kovalchuk and Elias both finished in the top ten. The impressive part is that Kovalchuk and Parise have been playing together on one line, while Elias has been getting the job done on a second line. Elias has been taking on the toughest competition night after night, and he usually comes out ahead. Travis Zajac centers Kovalchuk and Parise to plenty of offense as the other top line. He's getting into his usual form, which will be a big help at faceoffs and in overall two-way play. Offensive support has come from the 21 goals of Petr Sykora, David Clarkson shooting constantly and getting 30 goals, the hard work around the boards by Dainius Zubrus and Alexei Ponikarovsky, and standout rookie Adam Henrique now facilitating matters on the third line. The Devils' top three lines have been set and their only open question will be who replaces the injured Jacob Josefson on the fourth line. With some good fortune, pleasant surprises, good coaching, and hard work, the Devils actually have legitimate offensive depth. That's a big plus in favor of the Devils.

2011-12 - Tomas Fleischmann 82 27 34 61 -7 26 6 0 4 217 12.4
2011-12 - Stephen Weiss 80 20 37 57 5 60 5 1 6 149 13.4
2011-12 - Kris Versteeg 71 23 31 54 4 49 8 1 5 181 12.7

Florida's top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, and Kris Versteeg have been dynamite for most of the season. They've meshed together quite well and each has led the Florida offense. Versteeg, in particular, has been a thorn in the Devils' side this season as he has five goals in the four games against New Jersey. The support behind these three doesn't look as impressive by numbers at first glance, especially by Tomas Kopecky, but Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim, and Mikael Samuelsson both missed significant portions of the season. Had they been healthy all season long, the Panthers would've been better off. Unlike the Devils, the Panthers' defensemen have been a big part of the offense. Brian Campbell (4 goals and 49 assists), Jason Garrison (third in the NHL in goals by a defenseman with 16), and Dmitry Kulikov (who also missed chunks of this season) all have over 100 shots on net and at least 28 points.

Basically, the Devils would be wise to key on the Weiss line and keep them quiet. This isn't to say that Florida's depth should be discounted, but it's better to put the attack on their shoulders than either of their top three scorers. Of course, that will be far easier said than done.

As for the Panthers, they should focus on clogging that neutral zone and the space between the circles and their blueline. They need to make it as difficult as possible for the Devils to set up on offense. They've struggled to generate shots all season long and their attack really gets lame if they can't move the puck forward effectively. Sure, Kovalchuk or Parise can bust out a move to find space, and the Devils could counter-attack at an appropriate time. However, that's far preferable than to have the Devils just move into Florida's end and get the puck in deep without much issue.

The Defense

The Devils has been excellent at shot prevention this season. Their shots against per game average is the second lowest in the league at 26.8, right behind St. Louis. In 5-on-5 situations, the Devils have the second lowest SA/60 rate in the league at 26.3 - also right behind the Blues and just ahead of Detroit and Los Angeles. Needless to say, the Devils don't allow a lot to get on net. Then there's their penalty kill. The Devils didn't just have the NHL's most successful penalty kill, but they also set a league record in success rate at 89.6%. That's not just the result of good luck in the net; the Devils have the fifth lowest SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations in the NHL at 42.3. All that and 15 shorthanded goals, it's clear that the Devils' PK is the best in the world. If there's one part of the game Devils fans shouldn't be too concerned with as a team, it's defending. You can't ask for much better numbers from the team.

You can ask for a standout player and I have to pause because it's hard to pinpoint one guy. The Devils got the job done in their own end by committee - as best indicated by these advanced stats at Behind the Net. Nobody really pushes the play forward all that much, but no one really drowns either. The good news with that is that they still performed well when they were missing Andy Greene early in the season and then lost Henrik Tallinder for the most of the second half of the season with blood clots in his leg. They've handled missing top-four defenders. The bad news is that no one pairing can be counted on to carry the effort; it's got to come from everyone on defense. If there's a weak link in their own end, it really shows. Moreover, even with Zidlicky, the defense just doesn't provide a lot of offense.

I remain with a thought for each defenseman. We did name Mark Fayne the defenseman of the season (reasons in the post), but who knows how the playoffs will affect him for the first time. Can he still be the tough-minutes defender and keep his mistakes to a minimum? Andy Greene can handle minutes, but he's the definition of good but not great. That's fine in general, but it emphasizes the nature of this blueline. Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov have been physical, defensive defenseman who've been the main defenders on the PK. However, they're not at all fast and they have taken more penalties than the other defenders. Their physical play could work against them. Marek Zidlicky has acclimated himself really well since coming to New Jersey; but it's an open question as to whether he can he continue his good performances for 20+ minutes per game. It's up in the air as far as whether Peter Harrold or Adam Larsson (or both) will be in the lineup to start the series. Harrold has looked good in limited minutes while Larsson has struggled since returning from injury in February. At the same time, if Harrold starts faltering, then do the Devils risk that Larsson gets over his issues in this crucial time of the season?

As great as the defense has performed all season, I can't help but wish Tallinder was back to boost it. That all said, I could be worrying too much. If they did as well as they did over 82 games, then surely they can do it for a few more weeks. At least they have done more than the Florida defense.

Not to pick on Alex Galloway, but when he told Kevin that Florida's strength was their defense, I had to do a double-take. As mentioned in the offense section, the Panthers definitely have blueliners who can shoot and produce points. I suppose that's what he meant because it can't be in preventing shots. The Panthers are above league average in shots against per game at 30.5, which isn't that good. In 5-on-5 situations, the Panthers are also above league average in SA/60 at 29.8, which isn't that good either. What's definitely bad is their penalty killing. Their success rate is twenty-fifth in the NHL at 79.5% and they're in the top five in highest SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations at 54.3. Florida allows a good share of shots on net at evens and just bleeds them when they're down a man. I'm not sure how this makes their defense as a strength.

As far as standout players go, I want to highlight three defensemen on Florida. First, their big minute player is Brian Campbell. He leads their blueline with 53 points and in average ice time per game at an astounding 26:53. How astounding is that? Only one defenseman, Duncan Keith, has averaged as much ice time as Campbell this season. As the advanced stats at Behind the Net shows, he pushes the play forward better than any other Florida defender. The Devils will see a lot of Campbell. The other two defensemen are the Panthers' leaders against tough competition at even strength. Campbell eats up tons of minutes, but Mike Weaver and Jason Garrison have put in their time against better opponents this season. Garrison has an incredibly heavy and accurate shot. Like Campbell, he'll push the play forward and bomb away from the point. He'll grab your eye because of it. Weaver won't, as he is the mule. He starts mostly in his own end and he usually gets pinned back because he's used primarily in defensive situations.

If the Devils forwards can succeed against Weaver-Garrison and keep Campbell in check, then they shouldn't have too many problems going forward. It would also be to their advantage if Adam Oates and the Devils power play units to think shots all the time against Florida since the Panthers' PK has been vulnerable all season long. As for the Devils defensemen, they need to continue what they have been doing all season long. That means they have to limit their errors, don't get too aggressive in terms of positioning and discipline, and be aware enough to shift positions to keep dangerous parts of the ice covered.

The Goaltending

This is an area where Florida looks superior on paper. In terms of 5-on-5 save percentage, Florida is sixth in the league at 92.5%. The Devils, on the other hand, haven't been so good with the sixth lowest save percentage at 90.9%. Mind you, the Devils have improved to that number as the season went on. It was ugly at times.

The duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen (with some games from Jakob Markstrom) have performed very well in 2011-12. Just look at their stats:

2011-12 - Jose Theodore 53 3049 22 16 11 125 2.46 1502 1377 .917 .928 3
2011-12 - Scott Clemmensen 30 1566 14 6 6 67 2.57 773 706 .913 .922 1

There is an open question as far as who's going to start this series for the Panthers. Theodore has superior numbers all season long. However, he's been lit up in his last five starts with 17 goals allowed. It's been enough that Kevin Dineen has given playing time to Clemmensen as the 2011-12 season came to a close. Clemmensen hasn't disappointed with only four goals allowed in his last five starts In that must-get-a-point-game against Carolina on the last day of the season, Dineen went with Clemmensen in an important game. He performed admirably and it might be enough that the Devils may see their former teammate start this game.

2011-12 - Martin Brodeur 59 3392 31 21 4 136 2.41 1472 1336 .908 .911 3

There's no question that Martin Brodeur will be the starter for this game. While Johan Hedberg was marvelous in spot duty in the second half of the season (enough for us to name him the top goaltender), the fact is that Moose only started six games after the All Star Game weekend. That alone makes it clear that the coaches will go with Brodeur for their goaltending needs in this post season. Hedberg will only get minutes if Brodeur gets hurt (I hope not) or if Brodeur turns in performances worthy of the name Dwayne Roloson.

That's actually a reasonable decision when you consider that Brodeur has been more like his old self after the All Star Game weekend. He played so well, I thought he was among the best Devils players in February and March. Here's his post-ASG stat line:

Post-ASG 2012 - Martin Brodeur 28 1701 17 9 2 58 2.05 736 678 .921 3

I think the Devils will be more than fine with Brodeur. The larger question should be whether the Devils can crack Theodore and Clemmensen. Both are veteran goaltenders, both are familiar with the Devils, and both have been very good all season. While Theodore has struggled going into the end of the season, I don't think either goalie is preferable for the Devils' offense. My advice: just keep firing away - if the Devils can.

The Injured

The Devils should get Anton Volchenkov (ill on Saturday) and David Clarkson (minor lower body issue) back in time for Game 1. They will not get Jacob Josefson or Henrik Tallinder back anytime soon. Josefson was becoming rather useful in the bottom six as a center until he fractured his hand. It remains to be seen whether the Devils will keep Stephen Gionta up in New Jersey as his replacement, call up a winger from Albany and have Ryan Carter play center, or double-shift Kovalchuk or Parise on the fourth line and use seven defensemen. As long as the goons don't see the ice, either action is reasonable. Tallinder will be more missed. While the defense has done very well without him; his capability to take on tough competition and play 20-22 minutes without an issue would be welcomed right about now.

The Panthers are just about healthy. Unless I'm mistaken, Matt Bradley is the only one not active at the moment.

The Opposite Ends of Post-Regulation Play

The Panthers may be the higher seed, but they're not getting a ton of respect in this series. Winning only 38 games and losing 18 after regulation got them the Southeast Division crown, but it certainly isn't all that impressive. Florida went 7-18 in the regular season in post-regulation play, which includes a 6-11 record in the shootout. Only four teams have been worse than Florida's 7-18 and all four didn't make the playoffs. In a word: yuck. New Jersey is opposite to Florida, where they have been very successful once regulation ended. The Devils were tied with Colorado as the league's best team beyond sixty minutes with a record of 16-6, which includes 12-4 in the shootout. Florida went beyond regulation more often at 25 games, but the Devils have been their often since they've done it 22 times.

It doesn't mean all that much now. There is no 4-on-4, five-minute overtime periods or shootout in the playoffs. For the sake of argument, if we throw out the post-regulation records, Florida's record is 31-26 and New Jersey's record is 32-28. That's much more even.

Goal Differential & Motivation

While the regulation-only records show the two teams close to each other, goal differential is another story. Since the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and they won the Southeast, the Panthers fans have every reason to feel good about their team. As they should: making the playoffs and winning the division are accomplishments. Fans do and should be happy when their favorite team has some.

However, Jonathan Willis pointed out that Florida may not be all that good in the long run at Hockey Prospectus. As successful some of Dale Tallon's signings have been, there's a lot of money tied up in unfavorable contracts. More pertinent to this series is their goal differential. Florida has improved from -28 to -19 in a season. Despite Florida's strong goaltending and a great top line, the Panthers still got out-scored overall by a significant margin. The Devils are at +11 and that's with goaltending that didn't yield great save percentage numbers and an offense that didn't have more than two lines until Ponikarovsky became a Devil.

How is this relevant to this series? To me, it's just one more thing for Florida to use as motivation. The fact that they still got out-scored by so much tells me that this may not be a team that will have playoffs in future seasons unless they get better overall. They may not be back next season since teams that get out-scored around 20 tend to miss the postseason. They might get better overall in the future; but the current roster has more reason to leave it all out there in the playoffs. And when you throw in all of the other quotes and predictions showing the Panthers as the weaker team, you can be sure Dineen is going to use all of this as reason to pump up his players.

The Devils will certainly be motivated; but Florida has so much more to gain. They got a franchise to revitalize, they want to win a playoff game for the first time in this century, and they want to prove more critics wrong. Florida defied them once and the Devils are standing in their way of continuing their defiance.

A Final Warning to New Jersey

All 82 games of the 2011-12 regular season have come to this situation. A best-of-seven series. Florida may have the weaker defense and a shallower offense than New Jersey. Florida may have the worse goal differential, the slightly worse possession game, and the worse run of results going into the post season. Once the puck drops on Friday evening, it's not going to matter. It's just one game and that cliche of "one game at a time" really comes into play. Everyone's going to be on pins and needles because every goal, save, and event is important. It's what makes the playoffs so great and so agonizing.

The Devils may be the favorite and the better team, but they cannot discount the Panthers no matter how worse they may be. Yes, this is a better match-up for New Jersey than the other options; but it definitely won't be anything close easy. If something goes wrong, shake it off, adjust and correct. If something goes right, keep doing it. Take everything you've learned from 82 games and calmly and confidently put it all together for the next few weeks. Be smart in their own end, don't force Brodeur to bail out the skaters too much, move the puck effectively - don't just go for longer and riskier passes if it's not working out, and take every decent-to-great opportunity to put the puck on net. The Devils can win this series; but they need to play as well as we have seen them in this season to do it.

I sincerely mean this for the team: good luck.

Your Take

Now that you've read some or all of this monster of a series preview, I want to know what you think. What do you make of the Devils' and Panthers' offense? What do you think of the defense of both teams? How about goaltending, who's got the edge? What other factors that aren't in this preview - and I'm sorry if I missed any - do you think are important for this series? What are your thoughts on this series? Please leave all of your answers and other thoughts about this first round match-up in the comments.

Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.