No disrespect to anyone in the 973 or the 305, but this is the most low-wattage series of round 1, at least for Eastern Conference fans. Rangers-Senators has a resurgent Original Six franchise facing off against a young team that's way ahead of their development curve. Bruins-Capitals has the defending champs and star power to spare. And Penguins-Flyers might actually feature an on-ice fatality. This series? It's the weakest division champion in recent memory against the boring old Devils.
But these aren't your
father's older brother's New Jersey Devils. Sure, they still have Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, and even Ken Daneyko (although he's in the broadcast booth). But under first year (and former Panther) coach Peter DeBoer, and with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk playing excellent hockey, the Devils have opened it up and become a more prolific offensive team. As for the Panthers, weak division champion or no, this was a remarkable turnaround job by first year GM Dale Tallon.
Let's take a look at the tale of the tape:
Series: tied, 2-2
Goals for: New Jersey, 12-11
Shots: New Jersey, 116-106
Leading scorers: Kovalchuk, 3-2-5; Versteeg, 5-1-6
The Devils had 102 points in the standings, while the Panthers had 94, and so the temptation is to say that this is another case where the #6 seed is going to roll over a weak division champion. Indeed, much has been made of the 18 charity points the Panthers amassed this year; their ability to get a game to overtime and be assured of a point pushed them past two arguably better hockey teams, Buffalo and Washington, got them into the playoffs and into the #3 seed. However, the Devils aren't innocent in that department, either. The difference between these teams in the standings can be explained by something that's going to be irrelevant in the playoffs: the shootout. The Devils were a whopping 12-4 in the shootout this year, the Panthers 6-11, so let's not go waving the Devils through to round 2 just yet.
There is some contrast of styles here. Though the Devils have become more prolific offensively, and no longer play the mind-numbing neutral zone trap that bored fans to tears in their heyday, they still play at a relatively slow pace; they averaged just 27.5 shots per game, 4th worst in the NHL and gave up 26.8, second best. The Panthers play at a bit faster pace, with their 29.7 shots on goal and 30.5 shots against in the middle of the pack (15th and 18th, respectively).
Both teams are heavily reliant on their top line for scoring. After initially trying to put Parise and Kovalchuk on separate lines, the Devils decided to run them out on the first line, and just deal with always facing the opposition's best defensive players. The move was a wise one, as the pair combined for 68 goals this year (37 for Kovalchuk). They'll get regular center Travis Zajac back for the playoffs; injuries limited Zajac to 15 games this season, though Patrik Elias filled in quite well in his absence, with 78 points, mostly on the top line. The primary top line of Kovalchuk, Elias and Parise scored a combined 94 goals, accounting for 41.2% of the Devils' total goals scored. Adam Henrique, Petr Sykora, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus all broke the 40 point barrier, so with Zajac healthy, and Elias on the second line with Sykora and Zubrus, the Devils have two legit scoring lines, and a third line that becomes a legitimate force with a healthy Alexei Ponikarovski.
The Panthers are also highly reliant on their top line for scoring. The line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg featured the Panthers' only three 20 goal scorers, and overall, 34.5% of the team's total goal scoring production. But where the Devils have more secondary scoring up front, the Panthers fall off significantly. Tomas Kopecky was the next highest scoring forward, with a meager 32 points, and no other forward even mustered 30.
Where the Panthers have an offensive edge is on the blue line. Florida features one of the best groups of puck moving, attacking defensemen in the NHL: Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov all excel in this department. The Devils have had a stay-at-home defense for what seems like forever, as no Devil defenseman had more than 18 points. However, the deadline acquisition of Marek Zidlicky gave them a bit more mobility and offensive firepower, as Zidlicky had 8 points in just 22 games, a pace that would have far and away led the New Jersey defensive corps over a full season.
On special teams, it will be strength vs. strength when Florida has the man advantage, and mediocrity vs. ineptitude when New Jersey does. The Panthers were 7th on the power play, with Campbell notching an awesome 30 assists on the man advantage. The Devils had the NHL's best penalty kill. On the flip side, the Devils had the 14th ranked power play, but the Panthers had the 25th ranked defense. That's the downside of having a defensive group that's so aggressive and offensively-oriented.
In goal, one is tempted to give the Devils a huge edge. This is a mistake. Martin Brodeur will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and ranks in many people's estimations (incorrectly) as the best goaltender ever. Unfortunately for the Devils, Brodeur will turn 40 next month, and hasn't been a great goaltender in five years. His save percentage of .908 wasn't anything special, nor was his .903 last year, and he posted a 2.7 GVT. Hall of Famer or no, it's hard to imagine him riding to the rescue at this point in his career.
The Panthers will have Jose Theodore between the pipes, and even if his career doesn't measure up to Brodeur's, his 2011-12 season was better, as was his 2010-11 season. The well-traveled Theodore (who I still detest for stealing the 2001-2 and 2003-4 playoff series from the Bruins) had a .917 save percentage and a 8.2 GVT this year. Brodeur may have the name cache, but at this point in their careers, you have to rely on mysticism and intangibles if you want to argue that he's the better player. Since mystics are idiots, and predicting intangibles is a fool's errand, I give Florida the edge.
The Prediction: I think these teams are pretty closely matched, but ultimately, I think the Parise/Kovalchuk combo is going to be too much for the Panthers to handle. The Panthers rely on their power play for a significant amount of scoring, and from that perspective, they couldn't have run into a worse opponent. That will prove the difference. Devils in 6.