By Stu Hackel
It's the series that few people are watching and that's really a shame because it's been just as compelling as the rest of the first round, but without any of the histrionics that have accompanied most of the other matchups. So if you haven't seen any of the Panthers-Devils clash, Tuesday is your big chance -- there's no other game on the playoff schedule to compete with their Game 6 encounter.
Florida can close out New Jersey in this one and, if you're a Panthers fan looking for signs from the past, you might be comforted to know that the Devils have not been stellar in playoff games at The Rock since they moved from the Meadowlands three years ago. They are 4-8 in Newark, and the road teams are 28-16 in the first round so far in the playoffs. Still, it's hard to win an elimination match on the road and the Devs are usually good in bounce-back games. But putting back-to-back wins together has been problematic for them and the Devils will have to win tonight to put themselves in that position to win the series.
An unsual fact has characterized this matchup through five contests: Each game has featured one team going up 3-0 at some point and, with one notable exception, the winning team has scored early in the first period or broken the ice early in the second after a scoreless opening frame.
“The tempo has usually been set from the start of the game," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said on Monday (quoted by George Richards in The Miami Herald). "I expect nothing less from a team in desperation mode down one. Two clubs will be colliding very early in the game. We all have the thoughts in our head that we want this thing over; they want to keep going.
“One area we’ve prided ourselves on this season is our road play. We need to go in there and make a statement early. There will be no sitting on anything. I think both teams will leave it all out there.”
The one exception to the first-team-to-score-eventually-wins trend came in Game 3 a week ago. As in Game 1 of the crazy Penguins-Flyers series, New Jersey coughed up a 3-0 lead. But unlike the Pens, who never really recovered from their Game 1 collapse, the Devs followed their own with one of their best efforts of the entire season: a 4-0 victory in Game 4. However, in Game 5 on Saturday, the Panthers outworked them, winning more of the puck battles while pitching a 3-0 shutout.
It's rare when Peter DeBoer's Devils don't put out their best effort in a game and neither the coach nor the players themselves were happy about it. “We haven’t had many nights this year where we’ve been out-competed for sections of the game. I think that did happen last night," DeBoer said Sunday (quoted by Rich Chere in The Newark Star-Ledger). “We’ve got to fix that. Part of that is Florida played with some real desperation in their game. And, for some reason, we didn’t. I’m sure we’ll see it now.
"All that it’s done is you can’t have another game like that. We know that. We’ve got to bring our best game to the table here on Tuesday and then do it again on Thursday in order to keep moving forward. We don’t have that luxury anymore and that’s what the playoffs are about.”
The Devils, whose playoff absence last spring was the only time they've missed the party since 1996, haven't won a series in their last four postseasons. To stay alive and give themselves a chance in Game 7, they'll have to win two straight playoff games, and they haven't done that since they took their last three against the Lightning in the first round of the 2007 postseason.
For the Panthers, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2000, it's a chance to advance for the first time since their one and only magical run in 1996, when they trapped their way to the Stanley Cup Final. It's the only time they've ever won a series in franchise history.
Unfortunately, these two clubs just don't generate lots of attention or pull in big national audiences. The Devils have long been reviled as a boring defense-first team, but it's an unfair label for this edition of Lou Lamoriello's club. DeBoer has them playing a puck pursuit game and not sitting back waiting for their opponents to make errors on which to capitalize. They can be dynamic with the puck, led by a superstar top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk, although the Panthers have largely kept them from exploding this round. There's speculation that Kovalchuk might be playing with a groin injury, but the Devils have discounted that talk.
Florida had been so poor for so long that their irrelevancy on the NHL scene was assumed to be an annual circumstance. But with a massive roster turnover last offseason and some continued tinkering, GM Dale Tallon (who was named today as a finalist for GM of the Year), assistant Mike Santos and first-year bench boss Dineen propelled them to their first Southeastern Division title. They, too, deserve much more attention than they've gotten.
The Panthers are loaded with veterans who have performed well in big playoff games. Defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden are all Stanley Cup champions. Madden is a three-time winner. Mikael Samuelsson and Sean Bergenheim each played key rolls for the Canucks and Lightning respectively in those teams' deep runs during last year's playoffs. And defenseman Ed Jovanovski was a Panther the last time the club had playoff glory in 1996.
But New Jersey has a champion in goalie Marty Brodeur, who can be a difference-maker all by himself. Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora are multiple Cup-winners along with Brodeur. Shotblocking defenseman supreme Anton Volchenkov went deep into spring with the 2007 Senators.
The Panthers' Campbell, however, discounts all previous stats and experience when it comes down to what happens on the ice. "I don't think that pertains to hockey as much as in other sports — they always talk about it in football," he told Craig Davis of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Teams change so much over the years. For us, I don't think those stats mean anything. If we don't go out and play one of our better games, then we're not going to have success ... You just have to be prepared — prepare yourself a lot mentally and be ready to go to battle. It's going to be tough going into their building. We know we can win there. It's going to be fun."