Panthers make postseason return in Game 1 vs. Devils
(Sports Network) - The Florida Panthers will play their first playoff game in 12 years when they host the New Jersey Devils tonight at BankAtlantic Center in the opener of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Florida ended the longest postseason drought in NHL history this season, as the third-seeded Panthers punched a ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2000 by winning the franchise's first-ever Southeast Division title.
Although Dineen's Panthers were rarely impressive in 2011-12, the club's 38-26-18 record was good enough to finish ahead of the Washington Capitals in the Southeast. Florida won the division despite having four less wins than the Capitals.
Florida also 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 Tomas Fleischmann, who led Florida in both goals (27) and points (61). Kris Versteeg, another summer acquisition, 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. Tonight will mark the 29-year-old's first- ever playoff game.
Three of Florida's top eight point producers this season were defensemen. Brian 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 also had four goals and 24 assists to finish eighth on the team in scoring.
Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen has still not revealed who will start in tonight's Game 1 of this series, but if he goes with the hot hand the task will likely fall to former Devil netminder Scott Clemmensen and not Jose Theodore.
Clemmensen is best known for his 2008-09 season with New Jersey. The 34-year- old was forced into a starting role for much of that 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.
The sixth-seeded Devils may have a lower seed than the Panthers, 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.
Devils head coach Peter DeBoer, like Florida's Dineen, is making his NHL playoff debut as a head coach tonight. DeBoer was fired by the Panthers after the 2010-11 season, making room for Dineen to take over his post. 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.
"Three-quarters of that team is different personnel than what I had there, so they really are [just] another team for now," DeBoer said of facing his former club. "I'll have a few more friends in the crowd in Florida from my time there, but other than that it has no special meaning."
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. Kovalchuk posted 83 points (37 goals, 46 assists) in 77 games this season, while Parise was second to Kovalchuk on the team with 31 goals and finished third on the team with 69 points.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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 playoff 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 in the opening round. The Devils went on to win their second Stanley Cup title later that spring.
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.
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.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Sunday in Florida.
The Panthers were 21-9-11 as the host this season, while New Jersey was 24-15-2 on the road.
04/13 10:49:24 ET