April 25, 2012
Panthers, Devils win if ...
By TERRY KOSHAN, QMI AGENCY
NEWARK, N.J. - There's nothing in professional sports quite like a one-game showdown for all the marbles during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Eastern Conference quarterfinal so far between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers has shown us it could be difficult to predict what might unfold in Game 7 Thursday night. Both teams have dominated at times, but in two of the past three games it has been the Devils mostly controlling the play. Here's a glance at the important factors for each club heading into the do-or-die match at the BankAtlantic Center:
The Devils win if ...
1. They replicate their disciplined play in Game 6. For much of the series, Devils coach Peter DeBoer has been talking about the importance of staying clear of the penalty box, but it's not just because the Panthers have been sharp on the power play. DeBoer uses his top forwards to kill penalties, including Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, and the more they are on the ice in short-handed situations, the more fatigued they become and the more New Jersey's flow is interrupted. The Devils caught on in Game 6, as they had to kill off just one minor penalty and won 3-2 in overtime. The fresher they are, the better.
2. Their top players are their top players. This goes for every team, of course, but the Devils saw the importance of this in Game 6 with the performances of Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac. Kovalchuk, who has been dismissing rumours of playing hurt, had his best game of the series with one goal and one assist (although it's worth noting he is a team-worst minus-3 in the series). If the top players rise to the top, their teammates will fall into line. No matter how much DeBoer says he respects the Florida goaltending tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, the simple fact is that Martin Brodeur is Martin Brodeur, and the 39-year-old Devils goalie still has the ability to win a game on his own. So far, the Devils have not required that. One player who has not done a lot in the series is David Clarkson, who had 30 goals during the season. Clarkson has three assists.
3. Their depth continues to shine. The Devils' fourth line of Stephen Gionta between Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter has been excellent, combining for seven points. What's more, the trio has been responsible defensively, as each is at least plus-3 (Bernier is plus-4). The line has made something happen in the offensive zone nearly every time it has been on the ice, and Gionta, the smallest player in the series at 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, has set the tone at various times with crunching body checks. Although the Devils have been getting by with an unheralded defence corps, at forward they have depth the Panthers do not.
The Panthers win if ...
1. They score the first goal and get the rubber-rat-throwing home crowd into the game. The team that has scored first in the series has won five of the six games, while in Game 3, when the Panthers spotted the Devils a 3-0 lead, they scored the next four goals for a 4-3 win. Although the Panthers mostly were outplayed in Game 6, you can bet they will take some confidence from the fact they were able to hang around, tying the game and sending it to overtime. As good as the Devils were, they lacked that killer instinct to put the Panthers away. The series has been tight-checking more often than not, so expect the same in Game 7. Whether it's Scott Clemmensen or Jose Theodore in goal for Florida, one or two goals might be all the Panthers need to advance.
2. Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim continue to score timely goals. Versteeg and Bergenheim have three apiece in the series -- Brodeur referred to them Wednesday as "game-breakers" -- while Weiss has chipped in with two. Bergenheim never has been a consistent scorer during the season but there is something about the playoffs, as he has scored 12 goals in 22 career NHL post-season games. Why is it paramount that these three don't slack on offence? The rest of the Panthers have scored just seven goals, and only four of those have been supplied by other forwards. It's a lot to put on the shoulders of three players in such a pivotal game, but they have to come through.
3. They use their speed to forecheck and get in behind the Devils defence. When the Panthers have won games in the series, they have exposed what is a relatively slow group of Devils defencemen. Anton Volchenkov especially had trouble at times. In a series that has been as tight-checking as this one, there have been precious few scoring chances off the rush by either team. The Panthers have to make life miserable down low for the Devils, and one big bodycheck early would get the crowd's blood flowing.
Prediction: After leading off by saying it might be difficult to call it, we'll say the Devils will win and they'll advance to the second round. They were one of the best road teams during the season, winning 24 games away from the Prudential Center. Only the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, with 25 road victories, had more in the NHL. We like the Devils because they seem to have got one bad effort, in Game 5 in Sunrise, out of their system. The Panthers, on the other hand, have not been consistent. But, as goes the mantra in the post-season, anything can happen.