New Jersey Devils
They didn't make it easy for themselves.
It took all 82 games of the regular season but the Panthers finally secured their franchise first Southeastern Division Title with a win over the Carolina Hurricanes. This cemented their match-up against the New Jersey Devils and home ice for the first round.
Now the team finds themselves on the verge of the first playoff game since 2000, a year where they also played and lost to New Jersey in the first round. The Panthers had to wait a little longer than everyone else; their series is the last one to start.
But it is finally here. At 7:00pm on the NHL Network and MSG the Panthers will go for their first playoff win in 15 years. A fact both Florida fans and players want to forget.
The Panthers come into tonight's skating with a limp. The team was 2-3-5 down the final stretch. A stat that only dampens your spirits more when you notice how easy the Panthers schedule was in those final games.
However, the Panthers managed to draw the Devils, a team that gives the fans plenty of match-ups to watch.
The Devils are coached by Peter DeBoer, ex-coach of the Panthers. From the beginning of the year, the Panthers have had a lot of passion playing against their ol' bench boss. From the outside looking in, it seems that the players really want to stick it to DeBoer. Here is their best chance.
The Devils have always been a defense first organization. Panther's fans know of DeBoer's "pull 'em back" style. The Panthers have a free flowing offense, that starts from the puck moving defensemen and ends with their electric powerplay.
The Devil's sport an impressive PK unit and one of the story lines of this series will be who can win the special teams battle.
The Devils hold the edge in star power. Parise and Kovalchuk up front far eclipses anything the Panthers have. Look at David Clarkson's 30 goal campaign this year. Without the star power of the Devils' forwards, that does not happen.
Both the Panthers and the Devils have four lines. The series will see both teams using all four of their lines throughout most of the game. The depth and versatility upfront from both teams is something to keep an eye on. Whoever can get the most secondary scoring will most likely come out on top.
Florida needs winger Kris Versteeg to bury all his chances. He has the magic stick, and when he is finding the twine, the Panthers win. Also, Stephen Weiss finally makes his playoff debut. The Panthers need him to be the on-ice leader and to have a great series, in points and in the intangibles.
If Florida can fix their late season problem of burying chances, they have the ability to match New Jersey's star power.
The Devil's defense corps consists of hardworking grinders. They rely heavily on the defensive system and Martin Brodeur to shut down the other team. The Devil's have benefited from almost all of their defensemen playing consistently physical. The Panthers will get no cushion in the offensive zone.
However, the Panthers' D is more skillful. Brian Campbell fell one assist shy of 50, a team best. His puck moving and slick skating makes him critical in every situation. It is clear he will have to be (and most likely will be) the best defensemen in this series if Florida wants to move on to round two.
A major part of Florida's D is made up of rising stars like Kulikov, Garrison and rookie Gudbranson. This group has done well to not only start the offense from the back end, Garrison had 16 goals, but pound the opposition's forwards every chance they get.
Florida will have to match New Jersey's physicality and add extra offense from the blue line this series.
Always in the discussion for best goalie of all-time, Martin Brodeur will be 40 years old by the time the playoffs are over. How he performs will go a long way to decide whether he will be on the ice or on the links come his birthday.
Since he entered the league, so much of New Jersey's success is contingent on Brodeur's success. This won't be different. At this point in his career Brodeur can steal a game or single handedly lose a game. His experience, skill and competitive attitude would make you believe that this playoffs he will play strong. But his recent play over the past two to three seasons shows anything can happen with Brodeur in net. It is always an adventure, now.
In the other crease, the Panthers will live or die on the performance of Jose Theodore. Lately, he has been one of the reasons for the Panther's struggles. The shaky play has come after a long stretch that some would argue was his best stretch of his career. Theodore will look to re-channel that focus and drive. Without it, the series may be a lot shorter than once thought.
For every team in the playoffs, goaltending is crucial. In this series, for these teams, it is even more so. New Jersey and Florida are good teams that need goaltending to make them great. The edge obviously lies with the three time cup champ Brodeur, but on any given Sunday...
Florida is new to the playoffs, but their players aren't. Florida has done a good job of bringing in playoff vets and Stanley Cup Champions. Many of the Panthers are ex-Blackhawks from the Cup winning team: Campbell, Versteeg, Kopecky, and Madden. Madden has also been a Stanley Cup champion in New Jersey. Sturm and Samuelsson, who came over in the Booth trade, have over 150 playoff games and a cup ring between them. Jovanovski was a veteran leader on the Coyotes' playoff teams and made the long run with Florida back in his younger days.
The key to this series for the Panthers is Theodore and the first line. If Weiss and Versteeg can play with Fleischmann's consistency and finish, and Theodore saves the pucks he is supposed to save I believe the Panthers win this series in 7 games.