For the first time in over a decade, the Florida Panthers and their fans will get a chance to experience playoff hockey.
General manager Dale Tallon and his rookie head coach Kevin Dineen deserve a great deal of the credit for getting the Panthers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2000, ending the longest postseason drought in NHL history.
Tallon orchestrated an overhaul of Florida's roster last summer and his personnel decisions received mixed reviews at the time, but if the goal was to get the Panthers back to the playoffs than it's hard to argue against him now.
The changes began at the 2010-11 trade deadline when Tallon, who took over as Florida's GM in May of 2010, unloaded a handful of players to create tons of salary cap space. Tallon used that leeway to bring in new blood through trades and free agent deals.
The Panthers brought in recognizable names like Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore and it was up to Dineen to make sure the new group of veteran would build chemistry with Florida's existing core of youngsters.
Although, Dineen's Panthers were rarely impressive in 2011-12, the club's 38-26-18 record was good enough to win the franchise's first division title, even if Florida had four less wins than the Washington Capitals, who finished second in the Southeast.
Florida had the worst goal differential out of any team in the playoffs this season, giving up 24 more goals than it scored during the regular season. The Capitals are the only other postseason team on the minus side in that category.
Three of Florida's top-four scorers this year came to the club during the offseason, including Fleischmann, who led Florida in both goals (27) and points (61). Versteeg was the leading scorer for the Panthers for much of the season, but missed some time due to injuries and finished third on the club with 54 points (23 goals, 31 assists) in 71 games.
Homegrown forward Stephen Weiss, who was selected by Florida with the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft, centers the top line with Fleischmann and Versteeg as his wingers. Weiss led Florida forwards with 37 assists and was second on the team with 57 points.
Fleischmann, Versteeg and Weiss (20g) were the only Panthers to reach the 20- goal mark this season. Florida did have nine double-digit goal-scorers, including 17 from second-line winger Sean Bergenheim, who also joined the Panthers as a free agent last summer.
Second-line centerman Marcel Goc had 11 goals and 16 assists in just 57 games this season and is the best piece on a Florida penalty kill unit that ranked 25th in the league this season.
Veteran forward Mikael Samuelsson leads all Florida players with 53 points (22g, 31a) in 92 playoff games. John Madden is second with 21 goals and 22 assists in 134 postseason tilts.
Three of Florida's top eight point producers this season were defensemen. Campbell, who was acquired in the offseason in a trade with Chicago, led all Florida players with 49 assists and was fourth on the team with 53 points. Meanwhile, Jason Garrison exploded for 16 goals from the blue line in 2011-12 after posting just seven goals in 113 NHL games before this season.
Dmitry Kulikov, the 14th overall pick of the 2009 draft, also had four goals and 24 assists to finish eighth on the team in scoring.
Campbell is Florida's leader in ice time and is usually paired with Garrison, while Kulikov and Mike Weaver form the second unit. Jovanovski, who disappointed with just three goals and 10 assists in 66 games this season, primarily skates with the 20-year-old Erik Gudbranson, a highly-touted blueliner who was selected with the third overall pick of the 2010 draft.
The Panthers were tied for seventh in the league on the power play this season and Garrison led the way with nine goals on the man advantage.
Dineen has still not revealed who will start in net in Game 1 of this series, but if he goes with the hot hand the task will likely fall to former Devil netminder Scott Clemmensen.
Clemmensen is best know for his 2008-09 season with New Jersey. The 34-year- old was forced into a starting role for much of the season thanks to an injury to Martin Brodeur and Clemmensen did not waste the opportunity, going 25-13-1 with a 2.39 goals-against average in 40 games.
Although Clemmensen has not approached those numbers since signing a three- year deal with Florida following the 2008-09 campaign, he posted an 8-4-1 record from the beginning of February to the end of the regular season. Theodore, meanwhile, last won on March 17 and went 0-3-4 over his final seven starts of the season.
Overall, Theodore was 22-16-11 with a 2.46 GAA this season and is 19-28 with a 2.82 GAA in 51 career playoff games. Clemmensen, who was 14-6-6 with a 2.57 GAA this season, has never started an NHL playoff game and his only appearance in the postseason was a seven-minute relief effort for Brodeur during the 2005-06 playoffs.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-28-6
2011 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
(Sports Network) - The Devils may have a lower seed than the Panthers, meaning they won't start this best-of-series with home-ice advantage, but New Jersey has earned its favorite status in this matchup.
New Jersey finished fourth in the highly-competitive Atlantic Division with 102 points, just seven less than the New York Rangers, who are division champs and the No. 1 seed in the East. Playing in arguably the toughest division in the NHL this season figures to have the Devils in better shape than Florida to win this first-round series.
Devils head coach Peter DeBoer also has an axe to grind in this series, as he was fired by the Panthers after the 2010-11 season, making room for Dineen to take over his post. Personal grudges aside, DeBoer is unlikely to have a trove of inside information on how to beat Florida, considering the amount of roster turnover the Panthers have gone through since their previous coach was dismissed.
Overall, DeBoer's first season with the Devils was a success, as he got New Jersey back to the playoffs after the club missed the postseason last year for the first time since 1996.
The Devils boast a strong group of forwards that is led by wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, who form two-thirds of the club's potent top line.
After struggling to the second-lowest point total of his career in his first full season with the Devils in 2010-11, Kovalchuk bounced back this season. After posting a disappointing 31 goals and 60 points in 81 games last season, the 28-year-old Russian turned in an 83-point effort (37 goals, 46 assists) in 77 contests in 2011-12.
The knock on Kovalchuk, who has 406 career goals during the regular season, is that he is not a big-game player. However, the problem with that assessment is the former Atlanta Thrashers star hasn't had many opportunities to prove himself in the postseason, recording three goals and five assists in just nine playoff games.
Parise, meanwhile, may very well be winding down his time as a Devil and hopes to make the most of what could be his final postseason with the club. The 27- year-old is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and salary cap issues could force New Jersey to let go of the former 17th overall pick of the 2003 draft.
Parise was second to Kovalchuk on the team with 31 goals this season and he finished third with 69 points. The Minnesota native has 13 goals and 28 points in 37 career playoff games.
Travis Zajac will likely center the Parise-Kovalchuk line and had two goals and four assists in just 15 games during an injury-plagued season.
All told, New Jersey boasted five players with 20 or more goals this season and four of those snipers had more than 25 markers. David Clarkson scored a career-best 30 goals, while veteran Patrik Elias posted 26 markers and also finished with a team-high 52 assists. Clarkson was bothered by a lower-body injury at the end of the season, but is expected to play in Game 1.
Elias, who was part of two of New Jersey's three Stanley Cup winning teams, leads all Devils with 117 career points in the playoffs, posting 40 goals and 77 assists over 138 games. Petr Sykora, a member of the New Jersey's championship team in the spring of 2000, is next with 69 points in 115 career playoff games.
Set to play in his first NHL postseason, centerman Adam Henrique is coming off an impressive rookie campaign. Henrique, a third-round draft pick by New Jersey in 2008, finished third among the NHL's first-year players in scoring, posting 51 points (16g, 35a) in 74 games.
New Jersey's defensemen accounted for just 13 goals this season with Mark Fayne leading the way with four tallies. Veteran blueliner Marek Zidlicky, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Minnesota, had two goals and six assists in 22 games for the Devils and is the club's best offensive option at the back end.
Adam Larsson, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 NHL draft, had an up-and- down rookie campaign and despite leading New Jersey defensemen with 18 points from the blue line this season, the 19-year-old could be a healthy scratch to start this series. Peter Harrold, an undrafted 28-year-old American, figures to take Larsson's spot in the rotation after notching two assists in 11 games for the Devils this season.
Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador will likely form New Jersey's top pairing with Andy Greene and Fayne logging minutes on the second unit. That leaves Harrold, Anton Volchenkov and Larsson to fight for the remaining ice time.
Brodeur, the starting goaltender for all three of the Devils' championship teams, has struggled in recent postseasons and the Future Hall of Famer hasn't led New Jersey to a postseason series win since it beat Tampa Bay in the opening round in 2007.
Brodeur, who will turn 40 years old in May, still has terrific overall numbers in the playoffs, going 99-82 with a 2.01 GAA and 23 shutouts. He was 31-21-4 with a 2.41 GAA in 59 games this season, while steady backup Johan Hedberg was 17-7-2 with a 2.23 GAA.
The last time the Panthers were in a playoff series in the spring of 2000 they wound up getting swept by New Jersey in four games. The Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup title that year and although New Jersey may not have as strong a team as it did that spring it could still make quick work of Florida in this series.
The Panthers and Devils split four meetings during the 2011-12 regular season with Florida posting the superior 2-1-1 record thanks to a shootout loss. New Jersey wound up outscoring the Panthers by a slim 12-11 margin over the four games.
A key to New Jersey's success in this series could be slowing down Versteeg, who exploded for five goals and an assist in the four games against the Devils. Weiss also had a goal and four assists in the season series for the Panthers.
For New Jersey, Kovalchuk posted three goals and two assists versus Florida this season, while Elias added two goals and three helpers.
Brodeur struggled a bit against the Panthers, going 1-2 with a 2.62 GAA in three games. Theodore went 1-0-1 with a 2.40 GAA versus New Jersey, while Clemmensen allowed just one goal in Florida's 3-1 victory over the Devils on Feb. 11. That was Clemmensen's only outing against his former team this season, but he is 4-0 with a 2.05 GAA in five career games against the club that drafted him back in 1997.
Although not an explosive offensive team, the Devils should have enough firepower to get past the Panthers in Round 1.
Florida is in the rare position of being an underdog despite holding the higher seed, and outside of Clemmensen or Theodore flat-out stealing a few games, the Panthers return to the playoffs will likely be a short trip.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Devils in 5