The New Jersey Devils will visit the Panthers tonight at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida at 7:00 PM ET (FS-FLA, MSG+, NHLN) for the most important tilt the Cats have played in a dozen years. With seven playoff games around the league already in the books (and no shortage of thrills), the Devils will be looking to cash in on a supposedly easy opponent. In other action, the Philadelphia Flyers (1) will host the Pittsburgh Penguins (0), the Nashville Predators (1) will host the Detroit Red Wings (0), and the Los Angeles Kings (1) will visit the Vancouver Canucks (0). All those matchups will be the second game of each respective series.
The Panthers and Devils have faced each other four times during the season, with Florida posting a 2-1-1 record: won 4-3 in November, lost a 3-2 shootout in December, dropped a 5-2 matchup in January and won 3-1 in February. As for the regular season, Florida posted a 21-9-11 (.646) home record while the Devils were 24-15-2 (.610) on the road.
After winning five in a row in the middle of March, the Panthers lost eight of their last ten games to finish out the season, including a 4-1 victory on the last day, hosting the Carolina Hurricanes. New Jersey won their final six games by a combined score of 22-9. In all honesty, any momentum for either team was likely arrested by the six day layoff; the real thing starts now.
Videos, a poll, and more after the jump.
These teams last faced each other on February 11th. Ex-Panther Steve Bernier scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the game to open the scoring. It would prove to be the only blemish on the evening against backup goaltender (and ex-Devil) Scott Clemmensen, who stopped 28-of-29 shots. Florida would respond later in the period when Sean Bergenheim (11) tipped in a power play goal with five minutes remaining. Kris Versteeg (21) scored midway through the second, echoing earlier season glory with assists by Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann. Mikael Samuelsson (7) capped the scoring into an empty net late in the third. Martin Brodeur only faced 19 shots, but took the loss for New Jersey. Florida left the game with a 26-17-11 record, the Devils were 31-20-4. Said Clemmensen afterwards:
"A game like this late in the year is better than a game like this earlier in the year," Clemmensen added. "For us to do it here is good. It's a road win; good for us."
Panthers @ Devils 02/11/12 (via NHLVideo)
In the regular season finale, the Panthers clinched the Southeast division title in front of a crowd of 19,057, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1. Marcel Goc (11) and Marco Sturm (3) each scored early in the first, Stephen Weiss (20) scored on the power play midway through the second, and Mikael Samuelsson (14) iced it with an empty netter late in the third. Joni Pitkanen (5) scored the lone Hurricanes goal on the power play midway through the third. Rookie goaltender Brian Boucher stopped 22-of-25 shots in the Carolina loss, while Scott Clemmensen was masterful, stopping 34-of-35 shots for the win. Stephen Weiss expressed his relief afterwards:
"Pretty awesome, it's a surreal feeling. It hasn't been easy all year, and it wasn't easy tonight. That team pushed hard, but we found a way to win -- and win the division, which is what we wanted."
Hurricanes @ Panthers 04/07/12 (via NHLVideo)
For more on the finale, head for Canes Country.
New Jersey beat Ottawa 4-2 in their last game of the season, relegating the Senators to an eighth seed and a first round butt-whooping appointment with the New York Rangers. Matt Gilroy (3) and Jim O'Brien (3) provided the Senators offense against Devils backstop Martin Brodeur (31-of-33). Ilya Kovalchuk (36, 37) scored on the power play and added an empty net marker later. Petr Sykora (21) also scored on the power play, and Stephen Gionta scored his only goal of the season midway through the final period. Afterwards, Devils coach Peter DeBoer talked about the impending matchup against the Panthers:
"When we played them the first time there was some emotion involved. That's human nature. We've played them four times during the season, we've gone 82 games, and three quarters of that team is different than I had there. They really are another team for me now. I'll have a few more friends in the crowd in Florida from my time there, but other than that no special meaning."
Senators @ Devils 04/07/12 (via NHLVideo)
For more, check out the Silver Seven.
Panthers goaltender Scott Clemmensen posted a 32-19-5 record for the Devils over parts of five seasons. He had a .910 save percentage and a 2.54 goals against average with four shutouts during his time there. He also registered his only playoff experience, playing seven minutes back in 2006, making saves on each of the three shots he faced. He'd like to keep that save percentage steady, I can assure you.
Panthers fourth line center John Madden played the bulk of his NHL career in New Jersey. In 712 games over 10 seasons, he totalled 140 goals and 157 assists with a plus-35 rating and 193 penalty minutes. He also won two Stanley Cups with the team, in 112 career postseason matchups with the Devils, he scored 20 goals and 21 assists with a plus-three rating and 24 penalty minutes.
Devils fourth line winger Steve Bernier scored five goals and 10 assists over 68 games with the Panthers last season. He also registered a minus-14 rating with 21 penalty minutes.
The Devils other fourth line winger, Ryan Carter, began this season with Florida. Over parts of two seasons, he played 19 games, scoring two goals and an assist with a plus-two rating and 28 penalty minutes.
Tomas Fleischmann - 27
Kris Versteeg - 23
Stephen Weiss - 20
Brian Campbell - 49
Stephen Weiss - 37
Tomas Fleischmann - 34
Tomas Fleischmann - 61
Stephen Weiss - 56
Kris Versteeg - 54
Brian Campbell - 53
Jason Garrison - plus-6
Marcel Goc, Stephen Weiss - plus-5
Kris Versteeg - plus-4
Jose Theodore - 9.7
Brian Campbell - 8.4
Jason Garrison - 8.3
Tomas Fleischmann - 7.1
Kris Versteeg - 6.6
Stephen Weiss - 6.2
Patrik Elias - 52
Ilya Kovalchuk - 46
Zach Parise - 38
Ilya Kovalchuk - 83
Patrik Elias - 78
Zach Parise - 69
Ilya Kovalchuk - 10.5
Patrik Elias - 9.1
Zach Parise - 8.6
Jack Skille will be back next season while Matt Bradley may be available in the near future. Forward Marco Sturm (lower body) is "questionable" for tonight; he was replaced by Krys Barch in practice Thursday. Jerred Smithson, Keaton Ellerby and Mike Santorelli are scratched.
Anton Volchenkov had the flu, missing the season finale, but is expected back for the opener. David Clarkson has a minor lower body injury, but should also play. Jacob Josefson is out with a broken clavicle, and Henrik Tallinder is listed as "doubtful" for the playoffs.
Probable Starting Lineups (based on Thursday's practice)
Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Wojtek Wolski - Shawn Matthias - Scottie Upshall
Krys Barch - John Madden - Tomas Kopecky
Options are Jose Theodore (22-16-11, .917, 2.46) and Scott Clemmensen (14-6-6, .913, 2.57). As we all know, coach Kevin Dineen doesn't make his choices public until close to gametime, and the playoffs are proving no exception.
Martin Brodeur (31-21-4, .908, 2.41) is the probable starter, but has not yet been confirmed. Johan Hedberg (17-7-2, .918, 2.23) remains a possibilty, although slight.
Corsi Ratings (season)
Sean Bergenheim - .532
Marcel Goc - .524
Jason Garrison - .523
Scottie Upshall - .519
Brian Campbell - .518
Alexei Ponikarovsky - .556
Marek Zidlicky - .542
Jacob Josefson - .534
Petr Sykora - .527
Patrik Elias - .522
Panthers: 38-26-18, .573, 94 points, first Southeast Divison, third Eastern Conference, 14th NHL. Last five: L-O-O-L-W.
Devils: 48-28-6, .622, 102 points, fourth Atlantic Division, sixth Eastern Conference, ninth NHL. Last five: W-W-W-W-W.
We've already heard no end of "Stephen Weiss finally makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs after 637 NHL games, " stories. Martin Brodeur has 99 playoff victories (along with 23 shutouts (!)). Who has more? Trick question - no one. But Patrick Roy also has 99. If the Panthers don't sweep this thing, we will never hear the end of how Brodeur heroically won his record breaking 100th playoff game in Sunrise. This must not come to pass. The key to this series lies not in lighting up Brodeur, but in shutting down the Devils powerhouse front liners, especially the first two lines. For the Panthers to walk away from game one with a victory, it will be because Jose Theodore stole the show, Mike Weaver blocked a ton of shots and Erik Gudbranson hit 13 guys. This will be a chess match between the Panthers head coaches, past and present, don't expect a blowout, either way. I'm going with Florida, 3-1, including an empty netter (I would put money on it, including the score (in fact, I have)). What kind of homer would I be if I didn't pick the Cats to win?
For more on this matchup, check out our opponents at In Lou We Trust. The first-ever (!) LBC Playoff Game Thread opens right here at 6 p.m. ET.