Know this: Virtually no one picked the Florida Panthers to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000, let alone win their first Southeast Division title. But that didn't stop GM Dale Tallon's scrappy bunch from doing just that. And know this: Almost no one will pick the Panthers to make a dent in a very good New Jersey team that ended up the sixth seed but actually collected eight more points than the Panthers (thanks, NHL, for that misbegotten playoff setup).
But having spent time in Florida during training camp and then late in the season, and having been among the few who thought this team had a shot at a postseason berth, we're not convinced this series is as lopsided as many assume. The Panthers nearly gave away this shot at the postseason by managing to win just twice in their last 10 games, although, if you're a Cats fan, you point out they did manage to collect points in seven of those 10 games and they are truly a team with nothing to lose at this stage.
"We're going in loose," Tallon told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop, but we're going to have some fun with this."
The Devils, meanwhile, rocked into the postseason on a six-game winning streak. And rookie head coach Pete DeBoer, often overlooked when it comes to Jack Adams discussion for coach of the year, has seen his team steadily improve throughout the season, piling up an impressive 21-9-3 record since the start of February. They have a potent offense, led by Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, and a solid defense-by-committee playing in front of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.
"It's fair to give the Devils a dark-horse label. They're capable of good things in the playoffs," one Eastern Conference executive told ESPN.com.
This series will mark the first playoff appearance for DeBoer, who spent three years behind the Panthers' bench before landing in New Jersey last offseason. His counterpart, Kevin Dineen, is in his first NHL season but has done a bang-up job defining the Panthers' identity after a summer that saw a massive turnover in personnel.
1. Holy O:
You don't often hear "light it up" and "the Devils" in the same sentence, but there they were nestled comfortably in the middle of the league pack in terms of goals per game and power-play efficiency, and the team's play has steadily improved as the season has progressed. The team has moved from thinking about where to go and what to do and simply playing the systems that came with the new coach, DeBoer said. Kovalchuk is the spark plug with 37 goals, 10 with the man advantage. He was one of five 20-goal scorers and one NHL executive noted that what makes the Devils more impressive this season is that a guy like David Clarkson can chip in 30 goals from a third-line position. Clarkson also led the team with seven game winners. Perhaps the most underappreciated of all the Devils forwards is Elias, who was second on the team with 78 points. "We knew when Travis Zajac went down, we were going to have to lean on this guy up the middle," DeBoer said. "I was really surprised at how good a two-way guy he was. He's very, very smart. He's like another coach out there." Throw in rookie of the year candidate Adam Henrique, who finished one point off the league lead for first-year players with 51 points and tied for the league lead with four short-handed goals, and you've got a team that can hurt you in lots of ways. The Panthers? They have the horses in Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and the team's leader on the blue line, Brian Campbell, but as a team that ranked 27th in goals per game, they need to find a way to get the horses out of the barn if they're going to stay in this series.
2. Walking the Tightrope:
The Panthers were a rather remarkable 17-5-18 in one-goal games this season and the overtime/shootout loss totals were tops in the league. Tallon pointed out that had they even been .500 in shootouts, they'd have been a 100-point team. The Devils, meanwhile, ranked fourth in one-goal wins and were 24-7-6 in games decided by one goal. Bottom line is that both of these teams are used to playing tight games, which will ramp up the pressure. The Devils have been exceptional at protecting a lead and are 32-9-3 when scoring first and are 43-7-5 when leading or tied after two periods. They also boast the league's top penalty-killing unit and allowed a league-low 27 power-play goals. Strangely, it is the Panthers that possess the more playoff seasoned team with Campbell, Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden all winning a Cup two years ago in Chicago, and Madden has two rings from his time in New Jersey. Mikael Samuelsson won a Cup in Detroit, Ed Jovanovski has 69 postseason games to his credit and Sean Bergenheim was a key part of Tampa's run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring. The Devils have holdovers Brodeur, Elias and the repatriated Petr Sykora from the Devils' halcyon Cup days, but the core of the team is relatively inexperienced when it comes to Cup experience.
3. Goaltending Games:
In talking to scouts and executives about the Devils' goaltending, there is nothing but respect for Brodeur, the game's winningest goaltender and a surefire first-ballot member of the Hall of Fame. But there is always a caveat: "when he's on his game." The underlying sentiment is that the 39-year-old's play at this time of the year has undeniably slipped. Neither Brodeur nor the Devils have been beyond the second round of the playoffs since 2003, and Brodeur's record since the team's '03 Cup win is 16-26. DeBoer felt the Devils had managed Brodeur's time wisely this season, spotting him with veteran backup Johan Hedberg so Brodeur will be, in theory, at his sharpest in the playoffs. While DeBoer's goaltending decision is a no-brainer, the same can't be said for Dineen, whose starter, Jose Theodore, has been off the rails down the stretch, going seven straight appearances without a win. Scott Clemmensen, the former Devil, has been solid when called upon and was terrific in the Panthers' division-clinching win against Carolina on Saturday night. Right now he is the team's best netminder but has seen only seven minutes of NHL playoff action in his career.
4. Mr. Contract:
You have to credit Kovalchuk, whose contract mess in the summer of 2010 seemed to derail the Devils' entire 2010-11 season, for putting all that behind him and assuming a key leadership role with this team. DeBoer, who saw him up close in the Southeast Division while coaching Florida, admitted he was surprised at how willing Kovalchuk was to do whatever it took to win, and that meant playing out of position on the right side while Parise stayed in his traditional spot on the left.
"That's a daunting conversation to have with a guy. I was really floored by how receptive he was to it," DeBoer acknowledged.
"What I didn't know about him was what a good person this guy is and what a good teammate he is."
Hard to imagine that a guy with Kovalchuk's pedigree -- he has 406 goals and 785 points in 779 regular-season games -- has appeared in just nine postseason games. He has played in just two playoff series total and never played beyond the first round, and so in many ways he is an unknown when it comes to his ability to raise his game when it matters most.
A motivating factor?
"Absolutely," DeBoer said. "He wants to win. He wants to win a Stanley Cup."
5. Battle of the Underdogs:
Throw out the nonsense of the seedings because the reality is the Panthers aren't just underdogs in this series, they are an afterthought. Of the eight playoff series, they would have to be considered the team least likely to advance to the second round. "Hats off to Kevin Dineen," one Eastern Conference executive said this week. "But do I think they're built to really do anything? I wouldn't bet on it." Added another scout, "I think Kevin Dineen's done a great job with that team. They play hard. They have a fast team. But, truthfully, I don't think that teams are afraid of the Panthers like they are some of the others teams."
Of course, the Panthers might be perfectly suited to the David and Goliath role, and maybe, just maybe, that added motivation will be something that sends this series in a different direction than most people anticipate.
"We're underdogs, that's fine, and rightly so," Tallon said. "But we've been underdogs all year."
The Devils have their own baggage to carry, too, having missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 14 years. There was a desire to ensure it didn't happen again, DeBoer said, that helped open the door to changes in philosophy around the team. "[The coaching staff] had a captive audience that was willing to listen and do what you were asking," DeBoer said.
• Devils' defense versus Panthers' defense: While the Devils seem to hold a significant edge in terms of the firepower up front, there are still questions about the blue line. They have been without their best defenseman, Henrik Tallinder, for the last half of the season and blood clotting issues look to keep him out of the playoffs. No defenseman had more than four goals. While the addition of Marek Zidlicky at the trade deadline added a little oomph to the blue line, the reality is the Devils won't get much help from the back end when it comes to offense. "I don't think they're as talented on the back end. I'm not sure they have the depth for a long, long run," one scout said.
The Panthers, by comparison, are downright dynamic on the back end. Led by Campbell, who finished tied for second among all defensemen with 53 points and second among defensemen with 49 assists, the Panthers' blue line is crucial to generating offense. Jason Garrison enjoyed a breakout year with 16 goals, third among defensemen. Dmitry Kulikov, who had 27 points, is another weapon from the back end. In a series that figures to be achingly tight, production from the blue line -- or lack thereof -- might be a deciding factor.
• Adam Henrique: Rookie Adam Henrique has been a revelation this season. When Zajac went down early with an Achilles injury, Henrique, who had been sent to the AHL after an unimpressive training camp, returned and filled in admirably. Playing mostly with Kovalchuk and Parise, early on he played beyond his 22 years. How will he react to the pressures of his first NHL playoff experience? "I'm not worried about Adam Henrique. This guy has a history of stepping up at this time of the year," DeBoer said, noting back-to-back Memorial Cups won by Henrique. He was also the MVP of the OHL playoffs two years ago.
• Stephen Weiss: Hard to imagine the emotions Stephen Weiss was feeling as he watched the clock tick down on Saturday's win over Carolina, and watched the plastic rats rain down on the ice at BankAtlantic Center. After spending his entire career -- 637 regular-season games -- in Florida, he will get his first taste of playoff action. In the dressing room afterward, Weiss had an emotional moment with Tallon, thanking him for helping the team into the playoffs. Now what? Weiss hit the 20-goal mark in Saturday's finale and he needs to embrace this special moment if the Panthers aren't going to be one-and-done.
• Logic dictates that this will be a cakewalk for the New Jersey Devils. But the playoffs and logic are mutually exclusive. Having been a believer in the Panthers in September, we see no reason to deviate now, so we'll take the upset special here. Panthers in 7