NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: New Jersey-Florida

The Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils hook up in the Eastern Conference’s under-the-radar playoff series, as the 3rd and 6th seed respectively. The SportsNotebook previews their coming battle…

Both teams are offensive anomalies. Florida is poor offensive team overall, but average in getting shots on goal. The Panthers rank 27th and 15th respectively. New Jersey is not just the inverse of Florida in a general sense—the Devils have a terrible time getting shots, but survive by cashing in their limited chances—but they are the precise inverse. They rank 15th in goals, while being 27th in shots on goal. Teams with the kind of split the Devils have usually have a good individual scorer who can step up, and that’s what Jersey has in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. In the case of Florida, their split can be seen as reflective of a good team concept, but a team who needs a finisher. Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann are nice players, but in over their heads a lead scorer.

New Jersey’s calling card is defensively. NHL observers note that they do an outstanding job of taking all five players and sinking them back on the defensive side. This surely hurts the opportunities for Kovalchuk and Parise for open-ice scoring opportunities, but the defense helps protect an aging Martin Brodeur who’s quite literally been in goal longer than Mariano Rivera has closed games for the Yankees. New Jersey’s defensive concepts have made them second-best in the NHL at preventing shots and they’re in the Top 10 in bottom line of goals allowed.

Florida’s defense is better than their offense, but that’s still nothing to write him about. The Panthers are not a strong defensive team overall, and goalie Jose Theodore can be aggravating, but the flip side is that the reason for the aggravation is that Theodore is capable of playing at a very high level. The prospect of facing a goalie who can play at a much higher level in the playoffs isn’t exactly comforting and that’s what New Jersey is facing.

Special teams present a big edge for the Devils, where they are the NHL’s best at killing penalties, effectively inoculating them at losing games at the hands of an unfriendly official. It’s the kind of team Florida would prefer not to face, as their own power play is the only real offensive strength. On the opposite side, the Panthers have major problems in stopping a power play and if Kovalchuk and Parise can cash in some chances with the man advantage, New Jersey can get a lead and sink back into their tightly wound defense.

Even though the Devils are the 6-seed, they are the superior team here, with Florida’s Southeast Division title giving then an automatic top three seeding. If Florida is going to win this series they have to find a way to draw New Jersey out of their tight defensive strategies and create scoring opportunities. Even if they do, the Panthers still need to light the lamp, something we noted has been an issue this year. Because the Devils style lends itself to close games I think this is going to be a good series, but in the end the 6-seed moves forward.