The long playoff drought in Florida is over as the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade this year by winning the Southeast Division. I'm very happy for them and their fans but one thing to keep in mind is that they won an awful division and are probably the weakest team in the playoffs. Their goal differential is among the worst in NHL history for a division winner and over half of their points were accumulated in one goal games, 18 of which coming in overtime and shootout losses.
Does this mean that they are destined for a first round exit? Teams that earn a lot of their points in close games generally don't do well in the playoffs so it's easy to see why people think this is a good draw for the Devils but I don't think this is a complete mismatch. The Devils have also been involved in a lot of one-goal games and have the second highest winning percentage in the league in that category. New Jersey also has 12 shootout victories so I think it's unfair to discount Florida solely because of this as the Devils have clearly gotten a bit lucky this season too.
That being said, New Jersey plays in a tougher division and plays more difficult opponents so I think they deserve some slack but I still think that Florida will not completely lie down for them in this series. Does this mean I think they can win the series? You'll find that out after the jump.
As always, we start things off by going over the two teams possession stats and they are actually pretty even. Florida has actually been a slightly above average team at controlling possession this season and it's one of the reasons why they have gotten to where they are. They lack in other areas, though.
|Team||5v5 FenClose||5v5 Tied||5v5 Shots|
|Team||5v5 Sh%||5v5 Sv%|
|Team||PP Sh%||PK Sv%||PP SF/60||PK SA/60|
New Jersey is the better puck-possession team but not by a lot, so even strength play could go either way in this series. Both teams are known as more defensive oriented but even if we remove score effects, both teams seem to be around the same area in terms of driving the play. I will say that I like New Jersey's forwards a lot more than I do Florida's, but the Panthers do have a few defensemen who can prove offense from the blue-line. Something the Devils lack outside of Marek Zidlicky.
The Devils are clearly the better offensive team based on talent, though and I think that's probably why their shooting percentage is much higher than Florida's. Shooting percentages tend to vary throughout the season but New Jersey has way more dangerous forwards than Florida, which I believe gives them an advantage at even strength play.
The Devils weakness at even strength revolves around their goaltending as both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg are old and their level of play has clearly dropped a ton. They have one of the worst combined save percentages in the NHL and they are going to need to play a lot better than they have this year or Florida might actually pull off the "upset." Even at his age, Brodeur is capable of playing better than this and could definitely turn his play around in a small sample size but he could also lose this series for the Devils with a couple bad starts. Same can be said for Florida goaltender Jose Theodore who is having a good season but his previous playoff performances leave a lot to be desired. Him and Scott Clemmensen have been a solid tandem this year, so I don't expect there to be too many issues for the Cats between the pipes but goaltending is something that I like to shy away from predicting.
Special teams play is a mixed bag for the devils. Their powerlpay wasn't very good this year and it's largely due to not having a puck-mover on the back-end until Zidlicky was acquired. Their penalty kill, however, has been one of the best in the league at both preventing shots and goals which could tilt the special teams battle in their favor. Florida's powerplay is also middle-of-the-road and shouldnt' be too much of a problem for the Devils while their penalty kill hasn't performed well at all. Something has to give with the special teams battle but things look favorable for the Devils here.
The strategy for Kevin Dineen this year has been to give the tough assignments to Marcel Goc, Mikael Samuelsson and Sean Bergenheim and free up the easier zone starts for Stepen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. All three of the latter forwards are having terrific seasons and are winning their battles. Weiss' is inflated a bit by a high shooting percentage but it's hard to discredit what this line has done. I am far more impressed with Goc's line's work though. They have been taking some very tough draws this season and are still driving the play despite that. Goc and Bergenheim have done this for years but they were never this good.
The issue with Florida is that they don't have much in terms of secondary scoring outside of their top six. The Weiss line have combined for 35.5% of their total goals and they are the only three forwards on the team with more than 20 goals, the next closest being Bergenheim with 17. If the top line hits a wall then the Panthers might struggle to score goals but there are guys on their team who CAN provide some secondary scoring if the top line can't. Bergenheim, Wolski, Samuelsson and possibly Goc could possible pitch in offensively and we've seen Bergenheim do that in years past. These guys are at least getting the puck into the offensive zone a lot, so it's possible that they could step up as scorers in the playoffs.
Florida's bottom-six doesn't have much to write home about and I'm not sure who will be playing, to be honest. I know Smithson, Santorelli, Barch and Skille have been scratched while Madden has been used as the fourth line center. Marco Sturm has also been used on the third and fourth lines and he's also been one of their play-drivers while Tomas Kopecky has been bouncing back and fourh between different lines. The only thing that's been consistent is that Shawn Matthias is centering their third line and he's been slighty outplayed by mediocre competition. I'm not quite sure why Santorelli isn't playing over Madden becasue Madden is clearly getting hammered in his own zone whenever he touches the ice.
No matter what the Panthers do with their bottom-six, I think their success in this series is going to come down to Goc and Weiss' lines since that's what has been working for them all season.
From the looks of things, Pete DeBoer likes to use Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Dainus Zubrus against opposing team's top lines and those three have done a pretty good job at winning their battles. Elias is having a wonderful season and Sykora has been better than anyone ever expected. Speaking of season's that nobody expected, David Clarkson is now a 30 goal scorer, giving the Devils three on the team. He's definitely been very impressive this year as he's also done a solid job of driving possession so this isn't a complete fluke.
The Devils have two very good lines who are doing a terrific job of scoring and dirivng the play, which will definitely go a long way in the playoffs. There is the first line of Kovalchuk, Parise & Zajac who are probably good enough to beat out any matchup Florida throws their way, and Elias' line should be able to handle Stephen Weiss & company. Meanwhile, their third line appears to be very solid at driving the play into their opponent's end as that is Alexei Ponikarovsky's best asset and he should make a solid line with both Henrique and Clarkson.
The fourth line is probably the Devils' biggest weakness, especially now with Jacob Josefson out, but I think DeBoer is smart enough to make sure not to play either Cam Janssen or Eric Boulton in a playoff game. Stil, I don't see this line getting a lot of minutes no matter who plays on it. Neither Ryan Carter or Steve Bernier are very good and this line is going to get even fewer minutes if Boulton has to play. I wouldn't be surprised to see DeBoer roll three lines for most of the playoffs if this is the case.
Campbell and Garrison mostly play against second line competition & get a ton of offensive zone starts but they are dominating with those minutes. They also log a ton of minutes per night and have provided Florida with a lot of offense from the blue line. Garrison has 16 goals and Campbell is fourth on the team with 53 points. Campbell and Garrison also give the Panthers a threat on the powerplay as that's where Campbell normally works best and it helps to have a couple of good forwards up front, too.
The tough assignments go to Mike Weaver and Dimitry Kulikov who aren't exactly performing great with these minutes. Weaver is one of the most underrated defensemen in the league but he's giving up a ton of shots this season, but it probably doesn't help that he's starting 60% of his draws in the defensive zone. Kulikov has been a pretty good partner for him and seems to be good enough to play somewhat of a tough minute role. Campbell & Garrison do sometimes play with Weaver, though to help him out. Part of the reason why they log so many minutes.
Erik Gudbranson and Ed Jovanovski are both sheltered and usually play the fewest amount of minutes compared to the rest of the defense. To make this worse, both are losing the territorial battle and Jovanovski has been especially bad. I would expect either one to play over Ellerby, though.
There doesn't seem to be any vast differential in zone starts other than Peter Harrold getitng sheltered minutes in limited games, but it's pretty easy to tell who is getting the tough assignments. Mark Fayne and Andy Greene have been those guys for most of the year from the looks of things and both are playing decently in those circumstances. I'm a little surprised that Anton Volchenkov isn't playing the tough minute role instead since he did that in Ottawa and he appears to be holding his ground in New Jersey with a lot of defensive zone starts.
Bryce Salvador appears to be the weak link here as he is struggling with somewhat tough minutes while Adam Larsson is getting slightly protected at even strength and has been scratched recently. He is only 19 so some lapses are expected.
It'll be be interesting to see who draws the Weiss line but the Devils have some very defensively sound forwards and that should help take some pressure off the defensemen in their matchups. That will definitely help because the Devils do not have the most talented defense corps in the league and are still without Henrik Tallinder. I'm a little curious to see how things look in the playoffs, though because I'm not sure how comfortable I would be with Fayne & Greene playing the toughs, even if their play has been good this year. They also don't have much offense from the back-end but Zidlicky's definitely helped them.
I already talked about the goalies, so I'm just going to move onto the prediction. I think Florida has a fighting chance because the Devils aren't exactly one of the Eastern Conference's juggernauts but I don't think they have the horses up front to win. Weiss, Fleischmann & Versteeg are a good line but can they keep up with the top-end scoring that the Devils have? I also prefer the Devils special teams over Florida's because while the Devils PP has been bad this year, there's too much talent there and Florida's PK isn't very good either. I also like what their PK has done throughout the year.
In a series where both teams have similar possession numbers, special teams might end up deciding it and in the end, I think the Devils have the advantage here. They take the series in six games.
The Devils goalies save percentages after the all star break might shine some light to how they are playing currently. This also can be applied to the Devils PP. It took awhile for Oates to get the PP under control, and stop the bleeding that was SHGA. One of the disadvantages to looking purely at average statistics doesn't show progression, and that is something the Devils really have done all season. Would be interesting to see these statistics in a seasonly, and after-break comparison.