The Time: 7:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ (Local), NBC Sports Network, TSN (National); Radio - 1130 AM WBBR
The Series: The New Jersey Devils (2) vs. the Florida Panthers (3)
The Last Game: Zach Parise said the team was ready prior to Game 5 in Sunrise. As it turned out, they were ready to falter. The Panthers played a tight checking game for sixty minutes, broke through on the scoreboard with a power play goal in the second period from Kris Versteeg, got a gift late in the third period when a misplayed puck by Martin Brodeur turned into Scottie Upshall getting a freebie, and were awarded an empty net shorthanded goal when Ilya Kovalchuk chased down Tomas Kopecky and hooked him in a vain attempt to force a miss. The Devils took dumb penalties, killed all but one of them, but the time off the clock undercut their offense. The forwards couldn't sustain much offensive pressure. The defense didn't quell the Panthers as they have at evens in the other four games. Martin Brodeur made big saves early, but he can't score goals. The Devils lost the pivotal Game 5 by a score of 3-0. The series wasn't over, but the Devils put themselves on the brink of elimination. My recap of the game is here. Chris S Roberts is far happier as he is a Panthers fan; his recap of the game is here.
The Obvious Goal: Win or stay home. Death or Glory, Devils.
For a Florida-based perspective, please check out Litter Box Cats. For more thoughts on tonight's game, please continue on after the jump.
Let's get the news out of the way first. The Devils won't make any changes to their lineup. As reported by Tom Gulitti in this post at Fire & Ice, the team had an intense practice and Peter DeBoer said he's not planning to make any changes. I can't say I disagree. I'm not sure what changes he really should make. Anton Volchenkov has been the weak link in this series, but throwing Adam Larsson onto the ice to replace him after not playing for weeks (and he wasn't doing all that well when he was last playing) seems to be a risky endeavor. The roster we've been seeing is the best they have. Martin Brodeur is the goaltender; Mark Fayne and Andy Greene are running the defense; and the forwards are who they are. It is what it is.
Florida could have a change or two on defense. According to the end of this post by the Miami Herald's George Richards at On Frozen Pond, defenseman Keaton Ellerby returned to the lineup to practice on Monday and Jason Garrison will travel with the team to New Jersey. Either returning would replace Tyson Strachan in the lineup. If Garrison skates on Tuesday with the Panthers, then I would think he could come back to the lineup. The Panthers would love to have his dangerous shot from the point as well as his capability to play a significant number of minutes. If he can go, then he likely will because this is the playoffs and that's how players operate. Outside of that, I don't anticipate anything else by Kevin Dineen. Jose Theodore isn't going to be replaced after coming off a shutout performance; and there's no reason for him to mess with his forwards.
That all said, let me be clear by stating this obvious: this is a BAMN situation for New Jersey. This is a By Any Means Necessary situation for the Devils. It's win or stay home. It's win or go golfing at the end of April. It's win or sit on the couch to watch the other teams in the postseason. It's win or sit around for another summer wondering "what could have been."
It is because of this situation that I'm not interested in heart, desire, hunger, passion, moxie, guts, or any of those other terms associated with coming out ahead in an important situation. Those should be givens at this point. If it's not going to show up on the ice tonight, then I don't know what the players are waiting for. The Devils need to win this game and the only way they're going to do it is if they are the better hockey team tonight. That seems obvious but it must be emphasized. That's the way. This isn't the National Skate Really Hard League. This isn't the National Hard Working League. It's not even the National Heart League. It's the National Hockey League. Working relatively hard and making relatively smart decisions are prerequisites for success - not the actual successes themselves. So is getting a relatively favorable amount of puck luck, which doesn't amount to much without all of that other stuff coming into play. Why am I saying relatively? Because it's relative to their opponent; a team just has to do better than their opponent. Teams like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Vancouver have been simply fantastic all season long; and they're out of the playoffs because they couldn't do better than their opponent in their respective series for one reason or another.
As a result, the team needs to get their issues sorted out, or at least make it such that it won't hurt their cause against the Panthers tonight. Again: they have to win tonight's game by any means necessary. If they want to make winning this hockey game a real possibility, then it's in their best interest to actually address the problems the team has had in this series with their performance tonight.
First, and it's almost hackneyed to keep bringing this up but it's still an issue, the Devils have to stop taking stupid penalties. It's one thing if, say, Scottie Upshall dives from the most minute of contact to draw a call. There's nothing to be done there. It's understandable if the penalty prevents a goal scoring opportunity. Better to take a penalty than allow a goal - especially in this game. What has hurt the Devils the most was when someone Dainius Zubrus high-sticks a Panther on offense or Petr Sykora high-sticks a Panther in the neutral zone or Patrik Elias shoves a Panther after an icing and lips off at the ref afterwards. The avoidable calls are just that avoidable. We've heard before the last four playoff games that it's an issue; it's on the Devils to finally show they mean it.
Should the Devils get on the penalty kill, the PK units need to keep their wits about themselves. For example, Anton Volchenkov needs to be aware of his positioning, specifically being in a spot where he can actually make a defensive play. The forwards need to be somewhat aggressive but not to a point where their attack turns into an odd-man rush coming the other way. Martin Brodeur needs to be, well, himself from Games 4 and 5. The good news is that the Devils' PK has been far more successful in the last two games than in the first three in this series. The bad news is that going on the PK for eight to ten minutes really disrupts the flow of the game, it undercuts whatever work the Devils are doing at evens, and even successful kills mean it's time where the attack is limited.
The attack must be efficient - and it must get into and stay in Florida's end more often. While the Devils have enjoyed the better of possession at even strength for most of this series; the Panthers have increasingly clamped down on the Devils. They did a great job of it in Game 5, dulling New Jersey's attack. They did a pretty good job in Game 4. The only breakdown they had at evens was no one picking up Travis Zajac as a trailing forward prior to his goal. Florida has made it difficult for the Devils to get into their zone and, just as importantly, stay there to create some offensive pressure on their goalies. The Devils need to break them down tonight. The dump-and-chase strategy isn't working as intended; so I think that the Devils should look to move the puck swiftly on their breakouts so they'll have the space to carry the puck into the zone. Getting some odd man rushes would be even better. Either way, if the Devils will be held up at the blueline or unable to keep pucks on their sticks like in Game 5, then tonight will be long and possibly dreadful.
The defense must be aware of who's out on the ice. The Devils have done a great job at turning Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, and Tomas Fleischmann into non-factors in 5-on-5 play. (On the power play, it's another story.) They haven't done as well against Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, and Mikael Samuelsson. Part of that is on the forwards in terms of the match-up. Since DeBoer will have the last change for faceoffs, he'll be able to get some help while keeping guys like Volchenkov far, far away from Bergenheim. For the most part, the defense has been quite fine. Andy Greene and Mark Fayne are having a very good series; I'd argue Greene's been the most consistently good - bad penalty to kick off Game 2 aside. Game 5 was a step back. They should strive to get back tonight.
Martin Brodeur needs to be Martin Brodeur and I have no doubt he will be. He's answered the call in the last two games. Yeah, the second goal against in Game 5 was all him; but Brodeur gave up poor goals in big playoff series before - he turned out to be OK in the 2003 Finals, for example. The question is whether he'll get any goal support when Florida gets on the board or just in general.
As for specific players, there are several who could really stand to have a good game. The entire third line would be wise to make tonight a breakout effort. Instead of just being "there," I want to see Alexei Ponikarovsky, Adam Henrique, and especially David Clarkson get the puck in deep and cause some havok against Florida's bottom six. I want to see Petr Sykora put some shots on net (Game 5 was a good start) and Dainius Zubrus play big instead of taking big penalties. I want to see Patrik Elias not just be the straw that stirs the drink on offense but fire some attempts on net. I want the fourth line to keep what they're doing. I want Ilya Kovalchuk to be aggressive and actually get space to skate into. I want Travis Zajac to keep winning draws and keep firing pucks when he gets a chance. I want Zach Parise to play more like he did in Games 1 through 4 and lead his team on the ice. Ideally, all of the Devils need to contribute. If they can in a fashion similar to Game 4, the Devils will have a great chance to win.
For those who just skimmed through the past few paragraphs, please note that I'm bringing up hockey-related issues. Those are the areas where the Devils have been weak on and could stand to improve in their performances. If they can do that, then they should have a better chance at winning tonight's game. Florida will definitely not make this easy. They're coming off a shutout win and they've got a playoff series to win. They will definitely have plenty of heart, desire, hunger, etc. tonight. This is not going to be a game of who wants it more; it is a hockey game. I want the Devils to approach it from that angle if only to take some of the pressure off, to put things into perspective, and to perform on the ice professionally and calmly. I fear that panic or desperation is just going to lead to despondency late in the third period and a lot of angry fans at the Rock. Again: it's all about getting a result and it's not going to happen if the Devils are freaking out going into this game, or worse, during the game.
Therefore, it really doesn't mean anything to me if Zach Parise or someone else makes a big pre-game speech or not. For all I care, the players can go make an noonish run down to D'Jais in Belmar and fist pump to some crappy music if it means they'll get the win. The Devils should whatever they do to prepare for this game mentally during the morning and/or afternoon. All I ask is that the Devils go out there and win a hockey game. To do that, they need to accomplish things that help win hockey games and avoid things that hurt a team in trying to win hockey games. They can choose glory and make a great effort to do just that. Or they can choose death, suffer through the game, disappoint everyone watching them as well as themselves, have a handshake with the Panthers, and clean out the lockers like they did in early April last year. Please choose glory, Devils.
One final thought: the only guarantee I will make is that the Rock will be filled with Devils supporters. Fans run the gamut from the super optimistic to the super pessimistic. I think I can speak for every single Devils fan all around the world when I say that we want cheer on the team tonight and we want the win almost as badly as the players (should) want it. As with Games 3 and 4, I'll make my voice heard, you'll make your voice heard, and so will everyone else at the Prudential Center. It won't necessarily make a difference (e.g. just ask Penguins fans), but if the Devils need another reason to be motivated for tonight, then there's one more.
That's my take. I only have one question for you: Will the Devils win tonight's game? Please leave your answer and other thoughts for tonight's game in the comments. I hope this won't be the last time I say: thank you for reading. Go out and win, Devils.