After 10 long years, the team nobody expected to be at the top of the Southeast Division will face an old familiar face behind the bench of one of the Eastern Conference's perennial contenders.
Despite the snark and disdain offered to the Florida Panthers for "backing in" to their first-ever divisional crown, the fact remains that this team was torn down to the floorboards in the offseason and rebuilt into a squad that squeezed 94 points out of the schedule by any means necessary. There are more skilled teams. There are more physical teams. But they may just be the most resilient and relentless club out there, willing to do whatever it takes and able to outlast more than a few opponents -- something that will become even more important under the playoff OT rules, which differ from regular-season shootouts.
Meanwhile, former Florida head coach Peter DeBoer turned the team whom many felt personified "boring hockey" into a club that has some of the best scorers in the league, backed by one of the NHL's most accomplished goaltenders.
While it's hard to call the Florida offense "sexy," the fact remains that Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and longtime Panther Stephen Weiss have been scoring big goals for the club all season, while All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell busted his previous career points total by dishing out 49 helpers and scoring four goals from the blue line. And don't forget late acqusition Wojtek Wolski, who brings a record of 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 27 career playoff games.
On the other side of the coin, you have three of the NHL's best scorers in Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, while rookie Adam Henrique has stepped into top-six duty in a big way. The Devils may not have the same contributions offensively from their blue line, but the scoring depth of veterans like David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus and Petr Sykora give them a slew of options when they need to find a goal.
No team in the NHL is as associated with all-in team defense as the New Jersey Devils. With a roster-wide commitment to challenging opponents and sacrificing the body, the fact that they continue to rank among the league's stingiest units while still improving their overall offense under DeBoer is a testament to both his coaching skill and their overall talent. Their biggest question mark will be the play of rookie Adam Larsson -- how will last year's No. 4 overall pick handle the intensity of the playoffs?
The Panthers have blue-line talent of their own, including Campbell, Jason Garrison, Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov, but only two of their main blueliners have extensive playoff experience. The Panthers are not as bad defensively as some might assume (despite the much cited -24 goal differential, they only allowed 216 goals against this ear, better than the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks or Ottawa Senators). Perhaps their inexperience could be turned into an asset, as it comes with no preconceptions.
Though the Panthers may have struggled to score at even strength during several stretches of this season, their power play has been one of their biggest strengths. Finishing the regular season with an 18.5 percent success rate, their production was good for seventh overall in the NHL and third-best among Eastern Conference playoff teams. The Devils, on the other hand, had just a reasonably effective power play, finishing the season at 17.1 percent, and allowed 13 short-handed goals this season, the most of any club in the NHL.
Florida's problem is the penalty kill. With just a 79.5 percent kill rate, their special-teams defense is the second-worst among all playoff teams (the Blackhawks take the green jacket with a 78.1 percent PK), while the Devils ended the regular season with the best overall PK in the NHL at 89.6 percent. Interestingly, New Jersey also lead the league in scoring short-handed goals with 15 this season, while the Panthers managed only four.
A battle of irresistible force against immovable object, it's entirely possible that the team that executes best in this area will find themselves moving on, and the other going home.
Edge: Panthers, by a whisker
When you hear the news that Martin Brodeur is battling Jose Theodore in the first round, you can be forgiven for wondering if it's 1999. The two veteran goaltenders have seen major ups and downs over this season, but the fact that Brodeur played only 59 games this season may give him the mental edge he needs to win his first playoff series since 2007.
On the other hand, there's potential for both Scott Clemmensen and Johan Hedberg to see time in this series -- neither coach has been afraid to pull his starter if he's not pleased by the results, and backups Hedberg and Clemmensen have each stepped up to carry their clubs several times this season.
THE PANTHERS WILL WIN IF ... Their clutch scoring can continue. If Campbell and Garrison can continue to spark the Florida offense. If coach Kevin Dineen can impart the same fiery passion and toughness that he carried as a player to his squad. If they can disrupt Brodeur's game with traffic around the crease. If their power play can outlast the Devils' PK. If they can marshal the same "never say die" attitude that got them here and push it to another level. If maybe, just maybe, there's still a little bit of playoff magic in those plastic rats.
THE DEVILS WILL WIN IF ... If Kovalchuk can be as strong a player in the playoff as he was in the regular season. If Clarkson can keep driving to the net. If they can put enough rubber on Theodore to chase him from the ice. If DeBoer can use his experience with his old team (or what's left of it) to help give his club a few extra tricks. If Brodeur can pull the playoff monkey off his back and show that the best regular-season goaltender in NHL history can still compete for the ultimate prize. If their power play can minimize short-handed opportunities while their PK makes the most of their chances.