With 16 games left, and nothing left to play for except pride and experience, the new-look Florida Rampage... wait, that's not right. The new-look Florida Panthers, who have decided to call up majority of their AHL affiliate to close out the season, will suit up against a New Jersey Devils squad that's been playing relatively well as of late, winning seven of their last twelve and making a push to try to claim one of the wild card spots in the East. The Devils are the antithesis of the Panthers in that their special teams are both top-ten in the league, with their PK sitting second overall in the league with an 86.8% efficiency. Oh, and they win games too.
Meanwhile, Florida continues to struggle not only on special teams but even strength as well. The Cats are having trouble getting any kind of consistency in effort and with the recent roster turnover due to injury, there are a lot of new faces on the ice, leading to communication issues and questions of chemistry and who to pair with whom. It's quite a circus for head coach Peter Horacek to deal with but it's likely that these last 16 games will be the last time he'll have to cope. With the team struggling to play any kind of structured hockey, it's apparent that a coaching change may also be in the works during what is likely going to be yet another busy summer for the Panthers organization as a whole.
Through all of this, there are many young guys who may just be getting their NHL careers jumpstarted in these last 16 games. Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak (called up for this game), Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, Dmitry Kulikov, Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen. Not one of them is older than 24, and the Panthers may look to bring prospects Mike Matheson, Kyle Rau and Rocco Grimaldi into the fold next season. The youth movement has begun in force and it will be very interesting to see how they gel over the last stretch of games this season.
In Lou We Trust has your Devils goodness, so drop by and fancy a wave if you get a chance. Puck drops at 7:30PM EST.
Players to Watch
- Nick Bjugstad - Bjugstad is just one point away from being tied for the team lead in scoring in his rookie season, albeit on a very bad team and with less than 40 points earning you the title of team leader in scoring. But none of that should tarnish what the big, young centerman has done this season. He's the best player in a Panthers sweater, hands down, both in effort and talent. Dale Tallon and his scouting team hit a home run with Bjugstad and he will be centering the Panthers top line for years to come.
- Ed Jovanovski - Jovo gets a ton of flack for being old, slow, or ineffective. And yet he's sitting at a -4 on the year despite playing on a team that has allowed the third-most goals in the entire league. Yes, he's lost a step, and yes, he's not as effective in transition situations, but his numbers don't lie: he's been a steady defensive player despite having revolving D partners as the season has carried on. He and the other Panther defenders have it much rougher than we give them credit for considering the forwards can barely generate any sustained offensive zone pressure in any given night.
- Jaromir Jagr - If I told you when the season started that Jagr would be playing at almost a point-per-game pace, would you have believed me? I wouldn't have believed myself, yet here he is at age 42 playing on a mostly defensive team, and leading the club with 21 goals and 57 points in 66 games. He's simply defying age again and playing at an elite level on a club where many though his offensive skills wouldn't translate. Jagr always seems to prove any doubters wrong and he's been a revelation offensively for a team that's lost both Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise in consecutive seasons.
- Adam Henrique - Ah, the Devil that Panther fans all love to hate. Henrique is leading the Devils in goals with 23 (four of which are game winners), and is still evolving as a player that the Devils will want to retain for awhile. He's shooting more this season and it's resulting in more goals, and with a shooting percentage of just over 19%, he's showing that he's got that sniper capability. The Panthers will have to pressure Henrique with the puck immediately to keep him from having the kind of time needed to beat goaltender Roberto Luongo up high.