What do the Devils have in store for the Panthers beginning this Friday night? What is Kevin Dineen's game plan? Who does he have slated to start in net? Will Sean Bergenheim step up like he did for the Bolts last season? Will KD continue to roll out Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann in hopes of rekindling the early season magic? Will Brian Campbell continue to be the one of the top quarterbacks on the power play in the NHL? Will Wojtek Wolski continue to impress in hopes of landing a contract moving forward? These questions are hard to answer until gametime.
Last night, the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs started with a bang. After just three games you could see the players skating faster, passing crisper, shooting sharper and hitting harder. The Predators took it to the visiting Red Wings, 3-2, the Flyers overcame a three goal deficit to the Penguins to win in overtime, 4-3, and the eighth seeded Kings surprised the Canucks, 4-2.
Tonight, we'll get yet another look at how other cities are enjoying the extra hockey, as New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Phoenix host the openers of their respective playoff series. Unlike seemingly every other season, however, the Florida Panthers will also be joining the party, starting tomorrow night. Yesterday we took a look at the New Jersey Devils forward corps, and what we can expect from each of their four lines. For now, let's take a look across enemy lines and Scout our opponents - it may be a Rockie ride.
First Line: Zach Parise (31G, 38A) - Travis Zajac (2G, 4A) - Ilya Kovalchuk (37G, 46A)
We are all aware of the scoring prowess of Zach Parise (career 11.4% shooting percentage, six time 30-goal scorer) and Ilya Kovalchuk (six time 40-goal scorer, 14.3% career shooting percentage), the real wildcard on the first line is center Travis Zajac. Limited to 15 games this season due to a recurring issue with his right achilles tendon, Zajac is a good two-way center with a knack for winning faceoffs. His weakness is in his (lack of) speed. Shutting down the Devils scoring is of the utmost importance, but first and foremost the top line must be contained.
Second Line: Petr Sykora (21G, 23A) - Patrik Elias (26G, 52A) - Dainius Zubrus (17G, 27A)
In spite of his stat line, Sykora isn't the same hockey player as he was on his first tour with the Devils. However, he lines up at all three forward positions as needed and occasionally gets hot. In 16 seasons with the Devils, Elias hasn't declined at all. He's quick, clever, and consistent, but prone to turning the puck over when pressured in the corners. Zubrus, in his 15th NHL season, is an excellent puck possession skater. He converted almost 16% of his shots this season, and his 17 goals rank sixth on the team. The second line is nearly as dangerous as the first line. I've heard talk of the Devil's being a one line team, but don't believe it - these guys can sink us just as fast.
Third Line: Alexei Ponikarovsky (7G, 11A) - Adam Henrique (16G, 35A) - David Clarkson (30G, 16A)
Ponikarovsky lacks a true killer instinct and is not a natural goal scorer, but in only 33 games this season has registered a plus-nine, indicative of his puck possession skills. This will be the first postseason appearance for Henrique, and Clarkson is a pest. Watch for this line to try to stir things up and draw some instigator penalties.
Fourth Line: Ryan Carter (4G, 4A) - Brian Gionta (1G, 0A) - Steve Bernier (1G, 5A)
We could call this the expatriate line. Carter played with the Panthers for 19 games between last season and this one before being placed on waivers, and Bernier spent 68 games last season in Sunrise. Gionta is a veteran of all of 13 NHL games, including one this season. Maybe this is the line that will be out to prove something, but I think it may be the real weakness in the lineup.
First Pairing: Andy Greene (1G, 15A) - Mark Fayne (4G, 13A)
Greene is a solid puck-moving defenseman, is a good team player, and is equally good when controlling the puck or otherwise. Fayne is the Devils leading goal scorer among defensemen, with four. He's a big guy, and uses his instincts to place himself very well for blocking shots. Both are good position players, but neither is a legitimate threat to light it up. Their value truly lies in their defensive play.
Second Pairing: Bryce Salvador (0G, 9A) - Marek Zidlicky (2G, 6A)
Salvador is noticeably outmatched against quick wingers like Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall. His value lies in his crushing body checks. Like his mates in the first pairing, he is not much of an offensive threat. Zidlicky joined the team from the Minnesota Wild midway through the season, and is a deceptive offensive threat. He's a clever passing power play specialist with a heavy shot. Sometimes, he's a little weak in the defensive zone, prone to bad decisions which result in turnovers.
Third Pairing: Anton Volchenkov (2G, 9A) - Peter Harrold (0G, 2A)
Volchenkov is a powerful hitter and a great shot blocker, a true stay-at-home defenseman. What Harrold may lack in consistency he makes up for with his efficient defensive zone play. To this point, he is a replacement level NHL player on his fourth call-up from Albany this season, and has only 11 games this year.
The Devils boast a stable of truly defensive defensemen. For perspective, Florida's top six defensive corps has totalled 29 goals and 122 assists this season, for 151 points. New Jersey's playoff starting six has totalled nine goals and 54 assists, or 63 points for those math challenged Panthers fans out there.
Goaltenders: Martin Brodeur (31-21-4, .908, 2.41) and Johan Hedburg (17-7-2, .918, 2.23)
What could I possibly write about Brodeur that you don't already know. A dead lock first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in his 19th season, he owns every major NHL goaltending record, including 1,191 games, 656 wins, 27,312 saves and 119 shutouts. He is the owner of three Stanley Cup Championship rings, and has a career playoff record of 99-82, with a .919 save percentage and a sparkling 2.01 GAA and an NHL record tying 23 playoff shutouts, with Patrick Roy. Do you think he would like to break that tie against the Panthers? At this point, however, Brodeur may be starting to show signs of his age (he'll be 40 next month). Everybody comes down to earth sometime, even certain Hall-of-Fame goaltenders. Brodeur is evenly matched at this point against Panthers starter Jose Theodore (22-16-11, .917, 2.46). Hedberg is a career number two goalie, with a career playoff record of 10-12. He's also a little long in the tooth, turning 39 the day before Martin's birthday. He matches up pretty well with Scott Clemmensen (14-6-6, .913, 2.57), who has appeared in one playoff game, playing for seven minutes and making three saves, with New Jersey six years ago.
New Jersey boasts a classic team of offensive forwards and stay-at-home defensemen, bolstered by an old warhorse goaltender. Florida's key in winning this series is not in scoring a lot of goals (although that certainly helps), but in restricting New Jersey's explosive group of forwards. My prediction - whoever wins this first game will win the series, and I say Florida wins tomorrow, 3-1.