The New Jersey Devils (48-28-6 102 points) start the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals on Friday against the Florida Panthers (38-26-18 94 points). This will mark the 1st time in about a decade that the Panthers return to the playoffs. These two teams faced each other 4 times during the regular season and split the series. The Devils were 2-2, while the Panthers were 2-1-1. The Devils ended the regular season with a season-high 6 game winning streak while the Panthers struggled to win just 2 out of their last 10 games. Let’s take a look at the series between these 2 teams:

Game 1 (11/21/11): The Devils traveled to South Florida to visit the Panthers and this marked the first time that Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer returned to the play the team that fired him. Emotions ran high and the Devils took an early 3-0 lead in the first period with goals from Ilya Kovalchuk, Petr Sykora, and Danius Zubrus. The game seemed to be in the Devils’ pocket…or so we thought. Kris Versteeg turned things around for the Panthers and scored 2 goals in the 2nd period making it a 1 goal game heading into the 3rd period. The Devils were going on the powerplay in the middle of the 3rd period when Stephen Weiss scored a shorthanded goal to tie the game. The game was destined to go into overtime! Or not…Tomas Fleischmann scored the game-winning goal late in the 3rd period to complete the insane comeback for the Panthers. The Devils lost focus and sat back after the 3rd goal and couldn’t keep up as the Panthers went on a roll in the 2nd period. The game highlights can be seen here.

Game 2 (12/13/11): The Panthers were home once again as the Devils tried to get some revenge, but found themselves down 2-0 in the 2nd period after Kris Versteeg (again!) scored 2 goals, one of which was a shorthanded goal. The Devils decided that was enough and scored 2 great goals against Jose Theodore to send the game into overtime and finally into a shootout. The Devils have had great success in the shootout with a perfect 3 man starting unit, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Patrik Elias. Kovalchuk has been fantastic during shootouts this year and helped the Devils win 3-2. The game highlights can be seen here.

Game 3 (1/6/12): The Devils hosted the Panthers at the Prudential Center and the teams were tied at 2 heading into the 3rd period. Kovalchuk took the game in his own hands and scored 2 goals in the 3rd period, one of which was a beautiful shorthanded goal (we get one back!), before Zach Parise iced the game with an empty-net goal to help the Devils win 5-2. The Panthers put Jacob Markstrom in goal and the Devils took full advantage and exposed both the team’s and goalie’s weaknesses. The game highlights can be seen here.

Game 4 (2/11/12): The Devils were home for the series finale and had to face the former Devil, Scott Clemmensen in goal. During his time in NJ, Clemmensen was a fantastic back-up and helped the Devils make the playoffs when Marty was injured a few years back. Clemmensen brings his game level up a few notches when he plays the Devils. The only goal he let in was a terrible turnover in the Panthers zone where Steve Bernier had an shot for his first NHL goal. The Panthers came back full force with 3 goals to easily win the game 3-1. The game highlights can be seen here.

In order for the Devils to be successful in this playoff series, they must contain and shutdown the powerful trio of Fleischmann, Weiss, and Versteeg. However, the Devils cannot take the line with Bergenheim lightly.  The Devils, on the other hand, finally have Travis Zajac back in the lineup centering Kovalchuk and Parise. That line will be hard to contain, but if it is done, the Devils can rely on a strong 2nd line with Elias, Sykora, and Zubrus. If that is not enough, the Devils have David Clarkson and Alexi Ponikarovsky. The Devils have been rolling all 4 lines in quite a few games which has helped the team down the stretch in the 6 game winning streak.  The Devils’ offense and depth far surpasses the offense of the Panthers. If we take a look at the blueline for each time, the Panthers have a big name with Brian Campbell. The Devils do not necessarily have any big names but they can take care of business in their own zone. Mark Fayne has probably been the most consistent in Devils defenseman with a career high number of points and blocked shots. The goalie situation is staying quiet on the Florida front, however, we can be sure that Martin Brodeur will have most, if not all, of the starts. The Florida goalie situation is tricky because Theodore is on fire and has been 1 of the main reasons this team made it as far as it did, however, Clemmensen can be a brick wall when it comes to playing the Devils so Theodore might see his time split.

The preview cannot end without touching on the coaching of these 2 teams. DeBoer faces the team that fired him last season in the first time he makes it to the playoffs. This will probably mean more to the fans than to the players as only 3 players remain on the roster from last year. That is quite impressive for Kevin Dineen where he helped a team made up of completely new players click and win the Southeast division in his first year.

The Devils can win this series with pure offense. The Panthers have trouble scoring goals and will heavily rely on shutting the Devils down and on goaltending. If the Panthers are successful in shutting the Devils down, they may find themselves heading into round 2. Both teams have Stanley Cup experience in many of their respective players, however, if Martin Brodeur can be as effective as he has been in the past and rekindle some of that playoff magic, the Devils can find themselves advancing to the 2nd round for the first time since 2007. My prediction? You’ll be surprised by this! Devils in 6. Ok, maybe you weren’t surprised but I believe the Devils can pull this off and be a force that cannot be stopped in what we hope is a very long playoff run.

Playoff Schedule:

Game 1: 4/13/12 Devils @ Panthers 7pm

Game 2: 4/15/12 Devils @ Panthers 7:30pm

Game 3: 4/17/12 Panthers @ Devils 7pm

Game 4: 4/19/12 Panthers @ Devils 7pm

Game 5*: 4/21/12 Devils @ Panthers 6:30pm

Game 6*: 4/24/12 Panthers @ Devils TBA

Game 7*: 4/26/12 Devils @ Panthers TBA

*If necessary