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Devils-Panthers: Cats Will Suffer Sunset in Sunrise

The Devils are happy to be in the playoffs because last year they were AWOL -- absent without leverage.

Or, to put it another way; during their miracle second-half run in 2010-2011, they just couldn't lever themselves high enough to make the postseason.

What happiness they are now enjoying will be put into storage on Friday night when Peter DeBoer's sextet opens its series in Sunrise against a Panthers team that for 10 straight seasons had virtually forgotten the joys of Playoff Land.

But the Sunshine State's version of Santa Claus -- artfully disguised as general manager Dale
Tallon -- came down to Florida and turned the Cats’ roster inside-out, sprinkled a few Cup-winners from his Blackhawks Alumni Association and gifted Florida with the expensive, but highly productive defenseman Brian Campbell along with fellow 2010 Chi Cup-winners Kris Versteeg and John Madden.

All things considered, this series should go the limit and The Maven predicts that New Jersey should emerge winning the seventh game and thereby gain entrance to the second playoff round. To some Garden State rooters, it should be easier than that, but there's much to commend when it comes to the Panthers’ revival.

Florida was a team that Devils fans hoped-against-hope would be their favorite team's rival because it seemed that just about any other possible foe -- Washington, Pittsburgh, Rangers -- looked a lot tougher than coach Kevin Dineen's Tabbies.

But you know and I know that, in the playoffs, Walt Disney's theme, "Wishing Will Make It So," has as much relevance as Moby Dick's dentist. What's more, the best the Devils could do against Florida in four regular season meetings was to win a pair. And one of those W's was in a Shootout; which means that the Panthers wound up with five points to the D's four.

This, however, is the playoffs and New Jersey has a three-time Cup-winner, Martin Brodeur, starting in goal fronted by an offense that ices an assortment of guns labelled Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson and Patrik Elias, among other straight-shooters.

Under DeBoer's strictly handled baton, Marty's work was limited to 59 games because his supporting netminder, Johan (Moose) Hedberg, constructed a remarkably efficient season (16-7-2) and is ready, willing and more than able should Mister Goalie seriously falter.

But when assessing Brodeur's 2012 playoff potential, one cannot ignore two possible series-turning factors: 1. He will be 40-years-old on May 6; 2. At times this season, his game egregiously slipped into The Valley of the Slump. To Brodeur's credit, he was able to regain competent form and finished the campaign in fine fettle.

While DeBoer has unequivocally named Brodeur as his goaltending starter, Dineen has a perplexing question confronting him; should he go with his hot backup, former Devil Scott Clemmensen, or give the nod to the supposedly main man, Jose Theodore who began doing an imitation of a sieve in the homestretch?

Not only is The Clemmer motivated to beat Brodeur -- not to mention DeBoer -- but he's proven his worth by posting a 4-0-0 career record against New Jersey. If that doesn't persuade Dineen that Scotty is his man then what else would, the Statue of Liberty doing a head-stand?

Whoever is in goal for Florida must excel because the Panthers are among the lowest scoring teams in the league, finishing 27th in goals scored. They have survived by dint of an excellent power play, ranked seventh among the 30 teams. Likewise, if any opponent is qualified to defuse a PP it's the A-OK Devils penalty-killers who completed the regular campaign first in the league with a remarkable 89.6 percentage. In fact, that mark set a post-expansion NHL record.

"The PK did a great job during the regular season," says rock-solid defenseman Bryan Salvador who completed a remarkable comeback season after missing all of 2010-2011 with a concussion. "We want to make sure that it does an equally good job in the playoffs."

The Devils hope the balanced scoring attack they boasted throughout the regular season carries over as well. New Jersey was the only team in the league to feature three 30-goal scorers thanks to Kovalchuk (37), Parise (31) and Clarkson (30). Plus, the consistently underrated Elias wasn't far behind with 26 tallies.

The big guns on the top line will need to lead the charge for Jersey, but Brodeur knows that the Panthers will zero in on the ever-dangerous Kovalchuk whose playoff resume has, so far, been unimpressive, both in New Jersey and previously in Atlanta when he captained the Thrashers who lost four in a row to the Rangers in 2007.

"Kovy is key for us," Brodeur asserts. "He's going to be challenged in certain areas he needs to be ready for and he's excited for the challenge, its tough when you're a star like him because people will pay special attention. It's going to be hard work. That will open it up for some other guys to be successful."

Still uncertainty remains about the depth of New Jersey's attacking force. If the Devils are to succeed, secondary and tertiary scoring must deliver. That's where return-from-the-missing Travis Zajac comes in along with potential rookie-of-the-year Adam Henrique.

After missing most of the year recovering from an Achilles injury, Zajac is back between Kovy and captain Zach and Travis is rounding into form at the right time.  Henrique finished fourth on the team in scoring with 51 points and all-but-forgotten veteran Petr Sykora chipped in with 21 goals after starting the year as a training-camp tryout. Throw in productive midseason acquisition Alex Ponikarovsky with another big body in 17-goal-scorer Dainius Zubrus and there are forwards who can find the net in a variety of ways; DeBoer hopes!

"It's very exciting," said Kovy. "We worked really hard all season long to get (to the playoffs) and now it’s time. We just have to prepare ourselves the best we can."

That preparation will undoubtedly involve formulating a way to limit the Cats' threatening top line. Florida may not have the scoring depth featured on coach DeBoer's bench, but the trio of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Versteeg proved troublesome against the Devs' D during the regular season, playing a part in seven of Florida's 11 goals. Versteeg was a particularly painful thorn in Jersey's side, scoring five goals in four contests, and, as a team, the Panthers will look to take advantage of the Devils’ unheralded defense.

Salvador and Mark Fayne have been steady and reliable on the blue line, suiting up for all 82 games. Fearless shot-blocker and physical force Anton Volchenkov's style and attitude gives the Devils some grit on the backend. Andy Greene has been solid since returning from a foot injury and Marek Zidlicky has fit in nicely -- particularly as a facilitator on the power play -- since arriving in a trade from Minnesota. Top-pick Adam Larsson struggled down the stretch, giving way to veteran Peter Harrold. Larsson's status won't be decided until opening night.

Dineen is secure in the knowledge that his D-men can score. A Lady Byng Trophy candidate (only six penalty minutes), Campbell collected four goals and 49 assists while defensemate Jason Garrison finished with 16 goals and 17 assists. Both bear careful scrutiny by the Devils along with mid-season acquisition Madden who played for Jersey Cup-winners in 2000 and 2003.

"I still have friends on the team, but its business as usual," says Madden. "This is playoff hockey, but you look back and see how you played them, see how you match up. I'm sure they feel they match up well against us. It's going to be a good series."

Of course, Mad Dog isn't the only one facing off against his former team. DeBoer was canned by the Cats last April and while he dismisses the revenge factor, there's no question that an opening round triumph will have some extra added attraction for him.  Then again, his club strides into the post-season with momentum from a six-game winning streak.

"If you can write a script for how you want to enter the playoffs, obviously you want to win six in a row," DeBoer concludes. "We were playing some good hockey at the end of the regular season. Our confidence is high."

The Maven will be equally confident if New Jersey can translate the homestretch streak into playoff wins. From here, it appears that the Devils will have a mighty challenge and that's why I believe it will take them seven games to dispatch the Panthers.


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