The Florida Panthers were the surprise winner of the Southeast Division, and get the honor of hosting the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference's #3-vs-#6 matchup. Optimism is riding high in South Florida as the Panthers return to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, but can they handle Ilya Kovalchuk
General Manager Dale Tallon threw around wads of money last year (and lots of guaranteed years) to an assortment of players, many of whom he'd worked with in Chicago, and while his free-spending ways were met with derision in many circles, he's enjoying a good laugh at the moment, with the chance to hang a Southeast Division banner at next season's home opener.
The thing is, it seems like the rest of the Southeast Division lost that title, rather than Florida winning it. The Capitals and Lightning both flopped this season, and the Panthers used a league-leading 18 overtime/shootout losses to earn bonus points in the standings. They gave up 19 more goals than they scored this season, the worst performance of any playoff team since the Great Lockout of 2004-2005.
That said, they've got home-ice advantage, and they're in the dance, so they've got a chance. Over at Litter Box Cats, they're focusing on a shutdown defensive effort as paving the road to victory:
The key to this series lies not in lighting up Brodeur, but in shutting down the Devils powerhouse front liners, especially the first two lines. For the Panthers to walk away from game one with a victory, it will be because Jose Theodore stole the show, Mike Weaver blocked a ton of shots and Erik Gudbranson hit 13 guys.
The feel-good story around this team is that of Stephen Weiss, who finally gets his first crack at post-season play:
|2011 - Stephen Weiss||80||20||37||57||+5||60||5||1||6||149||13.4|
New Jersey Devils
The Devils always seem to get a little bit lost in the mix behind more notrious Atlantic Division teams like the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers, but New Jersey topped the 100-point mark as well, but Matt at In Lou We Trust argues that they shouldn't get overconfident against a Florida team which almost everyone is saying they should easily handle:
So what does this all mean for the Devils? For the players, it means that they need to prepare like they are playing the New York Rangers or the Pittsburgh Penguins. If the players go in with the mindset that the Panthers are just a stepping stone to Round 2, they will be sorely mistaken. While the Panthers are certainly not the toughest team in the league, no playoff team is ever a cake walk. Being the 6th seed, the Devils should be thinking of themselves as underdogs or equals to the Panthers because they are going to give them a heck of a time if they don't take them seriously.
The coaching staff needs to prepare the team for a hard series. If they coach the game the Devils are used to playing, they will play fine. If the coaching staff changes things up, it could be disastrous. There will be a lot of emotion for Peter DeBoer, being that the Panthers fired him not too long ago. DeBoer is the leader of the Devils and needs to come out confident and clear-headed.. If DeBoer can maintain his cool, the players will respond to that and play their hearts out for him. DeBoer can always ask for advice from assistant coach, Larry Robinson. Robinson is no stranger to the NHL playoffs.
So far, I think they're fairly happy with how their megabucks superstar is working out:
|2011 - Ilya Kovalchuk||77||37||46||83||-9||33||10||3||5||310||11.9|
As for the OTF Predictions...
The Panthers are the worst playoff team in quite some time. The Devils have three 30 goal scorers. Florida's a nice story, but it won't last long. Devils in 5.
The Panthers are really only in this position as a result of playing in an awful division. They've only won 38 games and have been the benefactor of a loser's point 18 times this season. Not to mention their awful -24 goal differential. If Brodeur plays well, New Jersey could make some serious noise this post season. Devils in 5.
Does Martin Brodeur still have what it takes? This will be the closest series in the Eastern Conference as the first-time Southeast Division champion Florida Panthers use a balanced scoring approach to solve the riddle of the greatest netminder still playing the game. Devils in 7.
The Florida Panthers are quite simply the worst team to make the playoffs since the Great Lockout. You don't get partial credit for losing in overtime during the playoffs, so Florida's secret weapon has been rendered useless. Devils in 4.