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April 13, 2012
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils

by Ryan Wagman

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The popular narrative of this series pitting a higher-seeded underdog against a favored lower seed is that of the higher seed having broken a drought that stretched back to the 1999-2000 season. The statistical narrative is that said underdog was the beneficiary of abundant luck, taking advantage of a lengthy slump by the greatly favored Washington Capitals and a points-allocation system that gifted them 18 loser-points for requiring more than 60 minutes to drop a game, leading the NHL in that dubious category by two. Another popular statistical storyline is of the underdog being among the rare playoff participants to reach that stage despite a negative goal-differential.

While the popular narrative certainly bears interest and the first statistical narrative should be taken into account in the playoffs where the shootout disappears and there is no consolation point for an overtime loss, the second statistical point requires a deeper study. While the Panthers are a -24 in raw goal differential and the favored Devils are a +19, the difference is much less stark when looking at purely 5-on-5 play. Strip away the automatic shootout goal added to the team tally (Florida loses five goals in the skills competition while New Jersey gains eight) which will have no bearing on the upcoming series and special teams goals which will diminish in importance as whistles become harder to come by, and both teams are suddenly looking less than rosy. At 5-on-5, both the Devils and the Panthers are decidedly below-average NHL squads. That said, one of these teams has to win.

Even Strength

Neither the Devils nor the Panthers were particularly dangerous (other than to themselves) when playing at even strength. On raw numbers, the Devils are superior, scoring 0.93 even strength goals for every goal allowed. The Panthers trail moderately, scoring only 0.88 goals at even strength for every similar one surrendered.

Digging a little bit deeper, taking even strength goal scoring as a ratio of time spent at even strength (after all, each team has spent a slightly different amount of time either on the power play or killing a penalty), the two teams are practically even, as they had both allowed 0.2 more even strength goals per 60 even strength minutes than they were able to score. *

*The above even strength figures are only referring to 5-on-5 play. 4-on-4 hockey, while exciting, is fairly rare during regulation play, and most of Florida's sub-par performance there is the result of their common overtime collapses. Overtime in the playoffs is played at 5-on-5.

One minor caveat to bear in mind in even strength figures is that New Jersey plays tougher competition with more games against Atlantic Division heavyweights like the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers, while Florida was afforded more opportunities against the likes of the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, both among the bottom tier of even strength teams in the NHL.

Florida Offense vs. New Jersey Defense

Florida Panthers Offense: -21.2 GVT (Rank: 27th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Defense GVT: +19.9 (Rank: 4th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Goaltending GVT: -4.8 (Rank: 21st in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, +36.3 GVT

The Panthers have a nice first line. On most, if not all other playoff teams, they would make a nice second line. This potent trio of 20-goal scorers features Stephen Weiss (57 points, 10.0 GVT) centering Tomas Fleischmann (61 points, 9.5 GVT) on the left and Kris Versteeg (54 points, 9.2 GVT) on the right. Only one other forward on the roster exceeded 30 points (Tomas Kopecky, 32 points, 2.2 GVT). A case could be made that Wojtek Wolski, a late addition from the Rangers, might also provide secondary scoring, but even if we prorated his playing time to a full 82-game schedule, he would only have contributed 34 points and 5.6 GVT.

Before one thinks that the Panthers can be easily neutralized, it should be pointed out that Florida receives more than its share of offense from the blue line as both Brian Campbell (53 points, 11.2 GVT) and Jason Garrison (33 points, 12.1 GVT) ranked among the top 31 scorers among defensemen and in the top 20 as measured by GVT among their positional peers. Beyond Campbell and the surprising Garrison, depth defenders Dmitry Kulikov and Ed Jovanoski can also provide secondary punch from the point.

Much unlike New Jersey's age-old reliance on stellar goaltending from Martin Brodeur to act as their primary line of defense, the new generation Devils must put their stock in the men in front of the future Hall of Famer, who is now only the weaker link in their defensive game. Their top defensive blueliner, Henrik Tallinder, has been away from action since the end of January fighting blood clots in his leg, but New Jersey has a number of backliners with positive possession games as all of Andy Greene, Matt Taormina, Mark Fayne, Bryce Salvador, and deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky are in the blue even when compared to the strength of their opposition. Expect Salvador to team up with hard-hitting Anton Volchenkov for most of the tough defensive zone draws.

The Devils will also lean on some of their forwards, including their second line of Adam Henrique, Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus to behave responsibly and play effective 200-foot games. Alexei Ponikarovsky, David Clarkson and the recently returned Travis Zajac will also play important defensive roles in this series.

Even though backup Johan Hedberg has the flashier in-season numbers, Brodeur is still the undisputed starter. Hedberg received approximately one start in three during the regular season, but a recurrence of that pattern during this series would be a likely indication that the starter has faltered under the increased load of the playoffs. That said, it would not be a bad idea to continue that pattern even though there is little reason to believe that it will.

Advantage: New Jersey Devils

New Jersey Offense vs. Florida Defense

New Jersey Devils Offense GVT: -2.2 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Florida Panthers Defense: -2.3 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Florida Panthers Goaltending: +3.6 GVT (Rank: 13th in NHL) Total: Florida Panthers, +3.5 GVT

The Devils garnered a lot of favorable press this year for seemingly playing above their historically defensive roots. This is only partially accurate. Sure, when one equates the Devils with success, the mind reels to the Stanley Cups won thanks to Jacques Lemaire's infamous neutral-zone trap, stellar goaltending from Martin Brodeur, and rock-solid defending by the likes of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. Looking at the previous section and this one, it is clear that the Devils are not a purely defensive-minded team anymore. Their goaltending has aged and their offensive game is now middle-of-the-pack. The Devils also have some elite offensive talent in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise and improved scoring depth in the still potent Patrick Elias, breakthrough sniper David Clarkson, and rookie surprise Adam Henrique. There is no way that the six most valuable Devils in the old days (and seven of the top eight) would have been forwards as has been the case this year.

It should be recounted that many scoffed when Kovalchuk signed his megaton contract with Jersey, partially in light of his lack of playoff experience on his otherwise flashy resume, and partly due to his status as one of the game's pre-eminent left wingers, the self-same wing generally occupied by homegrown hero Parise. Well, Kovy took one for the team and moved over to the right wing so that he and the soon-to-be-UFA Parise could team up. Young Henrique has been their stalwart pivot throughout much of the season, although the return to health of Travis Zajac seems to have pre-empted that in the season's final few games. Coach Pete DeBoer has protected his big two wingers, as they are the top two (among regular skaters) on the team in terms of offensive zone faceoffs. As Henrique has shown over all 200 feet of the rink, it makes sense to keep him on the second line as long as the bond between the star wingers can be maintained with another man up the middle.

With able goal scorers populating the second and third lines, the Devils should be able to mask their offensive deficiency—a lack of punch from the blueline. Rookie Adam Larsson was their leading point-producer from the rear, and he could only muster 18 points, although late addition Marek Zidlicky has been an upgrade from the point.

Spearheading the efforts to slow the Jersey attack are the unheralded defensive duo of Mike Weaver and Dmitry Kulikov. The pair are the most likely defenders to be lining up for an own-zone faceoff against the opposition's top lines. Both men handled the chore with relative success this year, although with little acclaim. The top blueline pair of Garrison and Campbell both have great possession numbers, but that seems to be as much from their own puck moving skills as from their ability to contain the opposition. That said, they will both play their fair share against Devil scoring lines.

The forwards most likely to play the tough minutes for the Panthers are the secondary scoring line of Marcel Goc, in between Sean Bergenheim on the left and Mikael Samuelsson on the right, a veritable EU joke in waiting.

What happens when you mix a German, a Swede, and a Finn in Florida? Two-way hockey.

The picture is a little blurrier in between the Panther pipes. Former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore is the incumbent, having played in close to two-thirds of the Panthers' games this season. For the most part, he has been up to the task, although the narrative will have you believe that he has slumped as the Panthers drew closer to clinching a spot in the playoffs, ultimately losing his role to backup Scott Clemmensen, a 34-year-old journeyman who spent over half of his career with the Devils organization. By slumping late, the reference is to Theodore' record of 0-3-4 in his last seven starts. The numbers tell a much more moderate story. In the first three of those games, Theodore was actually stellar, with three quality starts, allowing only six goals on 97 shots for a .938 save percentage. The next two games were merely so-so and then he ended on an abbreviated sour note, surrendering nine goals in his final two starts. At the same time, Clemmensen, in his four stretch run starts, including the penultimate 4-1 victory over Carolina that clinched the division for Florida, allowed only four goals on 132 shots, for an otherworldly .970 save percentage. When asked about his intentions going into the first round, rookie Panthers coach Kevin Dineen remained non-commital as to his preferred backstop. "I'll give it a gut-check," he said. "I haven't talked to my belly yet."

Not to disrespect Clemmensen and his grand total of seven minutes of NHL playoff experience, but any decision that would not hand the reins over to Theodore would be a mistake, potentially a fatal one for the Panthers' hopes to move past this hurdle. Experience aside, Theodore is the better goaltender, by reputation as well as stats both traditional (.916 save percentage compared to .913 for Clemmensen this season alone) and new-fangled (8.2 GVT in 50.8 games, compared to 2.4 GVT in 26.1)

Advantage: Even

Florida is ahead by the numbers, but the numbers do not include very much of the recently recovered Travis Zajac and the numbers are more confident than Dineen is about the Panthers' starting goaltender.

Florida Power Play vs. New Jersey Penalty Kill

Florida Panthers Power Play: +4.0 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill GVT: +27.0 (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, +23.0 GVT

Successfully killing nearly 90% of all short-handed chances will look good on any team. In fact, the Devils are almost as likely to score while killing a penalty as they are to surrender one, having tallied 15 shorthanded markers on the season. The Devils differ from many other teams in that they are not afraid to give heavy PK minutes to their stars, as all of Kovalchuk, Parise, Elias, Henrique, and Zajac averaged over 60 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game. Among healthy defenders, Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov will do the heavy lifting from the back end when shorthanded. Andy Greene and Mark Fayne will provide second pair coverage.

As much as Florida's power play prowess pales next to New Jersey's PK potency, they should not be overlooked on the man advantage. Their advantage attack is actually led from the back, as the surprising Jason Garrison led the squad in power play markers with nine, showing an innate ability to step up from the point to pick up a loose puck and find an open line to the net. Their forwards are given time on the power play in similar ratios to their even strength duties, with the sole exception being Tomas Kopecky seeing more time than Marcel Goc when the Panthers have the man advantage. Pay attention to Mikael Samuelsson, the run-away leader on the Panthers in terms of power play scoring rate, with 5.76 power play points per 60 minutes on the man advantage, 0.84 points ahead of the runner-up.

As good as the Devil penalty kill is, expect the Panthers to pressure them if given the chance.

Advantage: New Jersey Devils

Hard to make an argument against the best penalty kill in hockey.

New Jersey Power Play vs. Florida Penalty Kill

New Jersey Devils Power Play GVT: -7.2 (Rank: 26th in NHL)
Florida Panthers Penalty Kill: -9.1 GVT (Rank: 25th in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, -1.9 GVT

As much as the combatants will match up strengths when the Panthers have the power play, they will be opposing their weaknesses when the Devils are similarly emboldened.

As offensively talented as Kovalchuk and Parise are, they have both struggled to produce average rates on the power play, Kovy falling short of 4.0 PPP/60 and Parise failing to break 3.0 PPP/60 on the season. The trade deadline arrival of Marek Zidlicky provided only a moderate boost to that sickly unit.

To the above, the Panthers can breathe a sigh of relief. Unlike the Devils, Kevin Dineen lets his top scoring line rest when the Panthers are down a man, minimizing their exposure in those high pressure situations. One other change from their even strength heavy lifting is that the young Kulikov is a depth defender on the penalty kill as the heavy minutes are taken up by Weaver and Garrison, with Campbell and Jovanovski sucking up second-pair time. Whichever goalie Florida chooses to run with for the playoffs, they can rest un-assured as that goalie was a poor last line of defense on the penalty kill as both finished in the bottom 15 in the NHL among goalies who played at least 20 games.

Advantage: Even

It will not be pretty.

Season Series Results

In four games between these two first round combatants, the Panthers won twice (once each at home and away), the Devils prevailed once in regulation and once in the shootout. Not including the shootout "goal", each team scored 11 goals against the other.

Further drilling down shows that the Devils actually scored two empty netters in their 5-2 victory at home on January 6, while the Panthers got one freebie in their 3-1 road win to close the regular season series between the two clubs on February 11. Another step deeper shows us that the Devils outshot the Panthers (not including empty net shots) by a total of 114-105.

The games were played without much animosity, barring a couple of fights in the earlier two matchups between players not expected to play much of a role during the playoffs—Krys Barch from Florida and Cam Janssen on the Devils.

Considering that all games were decided by a single goal—again, not counting empty-netters—the two teams have matched up fairly closely this season.

Advantage: Even

The differences are too minor to use with any confidence.

Faceoffs

Florida Panthers: 50.6% (Rank: 11th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils: 47.1% (Rank: 29th in NHL)

At last, an area in which the Panthers are clearly ahead of the Devils. Although protected in terms of where they took place, Stephen Weiss was one of the most prolific faceoff men in the game this year, finishing eighth in the league with 781 wins, at a respectable 53.2% clip. Defensive centerman Marcel Goc was also above average in winning 51.6% of his faceoffs, of which only 38.2% were in the offensive end.

In comparison, the most frequently used faceoff man for the Devils, Patrick Elias, won only 44.1% of his 1369 draws. Adam Henrique, given more defensive zone responsibilities than his venerable teammate was okay for a rookie, winning 48.8% of his faceoffs.

Advantage: Florida Panthers

Injuries and Intangibles

The Panthers end the season remarkably healthy, with only depth winger Matt Bradley on the injured reserve. Grinding winger Jack Skille is also out as he recovers from shoulder surgery performed less than one month ago. Scottie Upshall is finally healthy again, if not yet productive. Injuries limited him to 26 below-par games on the season.

As was already mentioned, veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder is the only Devil of note on the IR, out since late January with blood clots in his legs. Sophomore center Jacob Josefson is also expected to miss the series with a broken wrist suffered late in the regular season. None of the injured players would have been expected to play important roles in this series with the possible exception of Tallinder, but as a long-term injury, his role has already been filled. After missing most of the regular season, Travis Zajac recently returned to the Devils lineup and has contributed three points in his first seven games.

The most interesting aspect of this matchup from an intangible (read: narrative) standpoint stands behind the New Jersey bench. From 2008-09 to the end of last season, Pete DeBoer was the man in charge in Miami. After leading the Panthers to a very close 93-point season in his first year at the helm, a season in which the Panthers only missed out on a playoff spot due to a tiebreaker, DeBoer's Panthers slumped to 77 points as a follow up and finally 72 points before he was relieved of his duties with the arrival of new GM Dale Tallon last summer. Lou Lamoriello, remembering the energy infused in the Panthers by the winning manager of the 2002-03 Memorial Cup, brought DeBoer in to replace Jacques Lemaire, finally allowed to permanently retire.

One of the key players on that storied Kitchener Rangers team was a pesky undrafted 19-year-old winger named David Clarkson. It is probably not quite a coincidence that Clarkson has blossomed this year under the stewardship of his junior coach, scoring 30 goals for the first time since the two parted in 2004-05.

While DeBoer may relish the opportunity to stick it to his former employers, there is no doubt that Dale Tallon is happy in his choice of Kevin Dineen as his team's new coach. The rookie has ended the longest current drought in the league, finding a way to blend a group of players who were largely new to one another. In many respects, the Panthers are felt to be simply happy to have made the playoffs, leaving them free to play without pressure. The Devils, on the other hand, must feel some stress after missing out last season for the first time since 1995-96. Martin Brodeur, inching closer to the day when he will be finally known as a former NHLer, must feel the heat to go out on top, as he has not pushed his team past the first round since 2006-07.

Advantage: Florida Panthers

The ability to play without pressure is huge. The fact that the roster is dotted with players who already own Stanley Cup rings (five, compared to four on the Devils) should help long-time playoff spectators like Weiss to avoid feeling awed by the occasion.

Prediction

Florida Panthers: -24.0 GVT (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
New Jersey Devils: +19.0 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Total Difference: New Jersey Devils, +43.0 GVT

At the end of the day, these two teams are not evenly matched. We can give the Panthers some extra credit as the home team, and they did have a superficially admirable home record this year of 21-9-11, but the Devils negate most of that through a strong away game, finishing the season with a 24-15-2 record away from the friendly confines of the Prudential Center.

The Devils have more depth, up and down the lineup, than the Panthers. While every player at this level plays with remarkable determination, look for Ilya Kovalchuk to take his game up a notch, and more than double his current career tally of nine NHL playoff games and eight playoff points. If DeBoer can devise a method of containing his old charge Weiss, the Devils will suffocate the Panthers first line and make quick work of the first round.

New Jersey Devils in six games*

*If Dineen goes with Clemmensen between the pipes, this series ends in five.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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