Season series: split 2-2
Nov. 21:Devils 3 at Panthers 4Dec. 13:Devils 3 at Panthers 2Jan. 6:Panthers 2 at Devils 5Feb. 11:Panthers 3 at Devils 1
Key injuries:Florida -- RW Jack Skille (shoulder surgery, indefinite). New Jersey -- RW David Clarkson (lower body, expected to play), C Jacob Josefson (broken wrist, 4-6 weeks)
Snapshot: Try to find a series between two teams with more disparate resumes than this one. New Jersey is the far more seasoned playoff team, having qualified for the postseason in 14 of the last 16 campaigns and won its most recent of three Stanley Cups in 2003. Florida was just happy to break its string of early golf outings this spring. The franchise hasn't played beyond the regular season since being swept by the Devils in 2000, and apart from their charge into the Cup final in 1996, the Panthers have won exactly one other playoff game since entering the league in 1993. In 2011, they fired head coach Pete DeBoer who now happens to coach the Devils.
The harbinger of recent history isn't much different. After a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh on March 25, New Jersey finished with six wins the longest active streak of any NHL team heading into the playoffs. The Panthers won just twice in their last 10 regular-season contests.
Rarely do all signs point a victory for the team that opens a series on the road the way they do here, but the disparity isn't as great as it seems. The teams split four games during the regular season, with New Jersey torching Florida for an unPanther-like five goals on Jan. 6. Both are more offensive than they have been in the past, and they had to be. Yes, New Jersey is the league's second-stingiest team in shots-allowed per game (26.8), but it's also aware of recent history. The Devils have won only two playoff series since their last championship year, leaving some to wonder if the club has relied too much on its defensive formula of smothering opponents that once served them well, but is not always the soundest strategy in today's game.
The Devils had three 30-goal scorers this season, including a surprise -- strongman David Clarkson -- but they rely heavily on 37-goal man Ilya Kovalchuk, who logged 28 more minutes of power-play time than any other player in the league.
The Panthers were the only team in the NHL to designate not one, but four rotating captains: Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Kopecky and Stephen Weiss. Only one Panther, Tomas Fleischmann, cracked the 60-point barrier this season. Goalie Jose Theodore has been generally good, but he allowed 15 goals in his last four starts and will need to be better for the Panthers to go beyond their first-ever division title.
Spotlight's on: Martin Brodeur. His numbers aren't nearly as scary as they've been in the past: 31 wins (tied for 13th in the league), 2.41 GAA, .908 save pct., three shutouts. But at 39, Brodeur played in just 59 games, sharing a good chunk of the load with Johan Hedberg. His 99 career playoff wins leave him one shy of a milestone he will likely reach against Florida. Given the Devils' capacity to play well in front of him, he may not need to steal games every night, but the man with 656 wins is still one lackluster effort away from slinking away in disappointment and one great run away from going out in glory.
X-Factor for the Panthers: Brian Campbell. He's one of the NHL's premier workhorses. Since the lockout, he's logged a whopping 90 playoff games, including a five-year run with San Jose and Chicago during which he played in no fewer than 13 each season. His tenure yielded a Stanley Cup with the Hawks in 2010. And nobody in the NHL played as much during this just-concluded regular season as Campbell, who logged 53 minutes more than the next busiest player, Rangers' defenseman Dan Girardi. Campbell also ranked third in the NHL in points on Florida's much-improved power play.
X-Factor for the Devils: Zach Parise. Of course Parise is playing for his team as hard as ever, but he's also playing for what could be a financial windfall this summer when he enters the free agent market. Players respond differently to what could be their walk year, and with a relatively slim crop of high-profile free agents-to-be this summer, Parise, a five-time 30-goal scorer and always among New Jersey's leading getters, could command a significant price that will only be greater if he performs well in the playoffs. Let's just say the man has some incentive.
The Pick: Devils in 6