The last week of the NHL regular season contained some surprises for hockey fans, one of those being the unexpected result of the Florida Panthers capturing the Southeast Division championship and grabbing the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers hadn’t seen the post-season since 2000, yet here they are with their 94 points preparing to take on a 102-point New Jersey Devils team which, on paper at least, shouldn’t have any trouble handling those endangered cats.
For one thing, they have plenty of firepower. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Petr Sykora, Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson all contributed during the six-game winning streak New Jersey tallied to close out the regular season. The experts say it’s best to have positive momentum, and the Devils have plenty of that.
That heat also applies to the goal crease. The ageless Martin Brodeur (34 wins, 2.41 GAA, 3 shutouts) and his capable backup, Johan “Moose” Hedberg (17 wins, 2.22 GAA, 4 shuotuts) certainly appear to be ready for anything Florida can throw at them. Their only real weakness appears to be defense, but that’s only because there aren’t any stars here. Marek Zidlicky, Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold won’t be on anyone’s Hall of Fame ballot, but they and the injured Henrik Tallinder (blood clot in the leg) have helped the Devils to rank ninth in goals against.
Then there’s the personal juice. Peter DeBoer was unceremoniously let go by Florida, and subsequently hired to run the Devils. DeBoer is probably too busy preparing his team to be focusing on that, but you have to think it’s somewhere in the back of his mind. In this circumstance, revenge would be very sweet.
On the other side, there haven’t been many clubs which get home-ice advantage yet are regarded as underdogs in their opening playoff series. That’s the predicament the Panthers find themselves in; if that wasn’t bad enough, now they have to figure out which of their goaltenders should start Game 1. The duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen is no one’s idea of an elite netminding corps. Yet head coach Kevin Dineen has to determine which of these two will be between the pipes when the anthem plays at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida on Friday. Theodore is supposed to be the No. 1 guy, but it’s Clemmensen who has produced in the run-up to the post-season.
The offense isn’t much to shout about: when you have a top six composed of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Mikael Samuelsson, Marcel Goc and Tomas Kopecky, you’re happy to get any production at all from them. The defense should be more of a strength, with the likes of Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov. The fact is, though, that Florida is just above the middle of the pack in goals against (12th) and near the bottom in total goals (27th). They do rank eighth on the power play while Jersey is farther back, so this might be one of the only ways the Panthers will have a chance.
Florida definitely isn’t getting much love in the NHL futures betting, and certainly not in the prop bets for this series. If everything stays the same, it would be shocking if New Jersey needed more than five games to wrap things up.