Devils Vs. Panthers, Game 1: Learning Curve, Not Goaltending, Florida's Biggest Hurdle

April 13, 2012; Sunrise, FL, USA; New Jersey Devils center Patrik Elias (26) scores a goal past Florida Panthers goalie Jose Theodore (60) at BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

Despite the controversy over choosing Jose Theodore over Scott Clemmensen in net, the real problem for the Panthers in their 3-2 Game 1 loss was an inexperienced defensive corps receiving a crash course in playoff hockey.

When Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen finally broke his week-long silence to announce that Jose Theodore would be his starting netminder, the reaction from fans and pundits alike was skeptical. Theodore's record in his last five regular starts had been 0-2-3, compared to Scott Clemmensen's 3-0-1 finish.

Theodore, on the other hand, brought one thing to the table that Clemmensen could not: 51 playoff appearances over his NHL career, while Clemmensen's postseason experience is measured not in games, but in minutes. (Seven minutes, to be exact.)

Some will point to the way the Devils drove to a 3-0 lead in the first period as a sign that "Jose Threeormore" was the wrong call, but they simply are not looking at the real story.

Prior to Friday's game, the Panthers' defensive corps had 163 career playoff games under their collective belt. On paper, it seems like a solid core, but 90 of those games are embodied in Brian Campbell, and another 69 belong to Ed Jovanovski. (The remaining four? Mike Weaver, in his brief appearance with the Blues.)

By contrast, the Devils' blue line carries 148 career playoff apperances, but Anton Volchenkov (61), Bryce Salvador (51), Andy Greene (21), and Marek Zidlicky (14) all bring at least three playoff series to the table.

The difference between the two groups became clear in the first period of Friday night's action, when Florida simply could not clear their own zone or maintain good coverage around their own net, while the Devils minimized every Florida opportunity.

Rebound control for Theodore was an issue at times, but no less than it was for Martin Brodeur, who was saved several times throughout the game by his defense moving the puck out of dangerous areas and neutralizing the Panthers' offense - particularly the work put into shutting down Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss.

The opening goal of the game, by contrast, saw Patrik Elias left totally undefended thanks to a sequence of miscues, while the decision to leave wide passing lanes through the neutral zone on the PK would lead directly to Brodeur's long stretch pass to set up Dainus Zubrus for the 2-0 lead.

Finally, there was the neutral zone turnover that led to Ryan Carter's goal by, ironically, Jovanovski, in a momentary brain cramp by the veteran that would allow Carter to break into the zone and eventually beat Theodore one-on-one.

If there is good news for Panthers fans, it is the way that the Panther defense, particularly Jason Garrison and Dmitri Kulikov, battled back after their horrific first period performance. Limiting New Jersey to just 12 shots after their record-setting first period outburst, the work on both the transition game and defensive coverage against their veteran opponents improved with every minute of playing time. Meanwhile, Theodore continued to keep an even strain, making several impressive stops on players to keep his team in the battle.

Though the "Cardiac Cats" couldn't find a way to complete their recovery before the end of Game 1, the stage has been set for a much stronger performance in Game 2 - presuming they can build on the lessons learned from this crash course.

Stick with SBNation.com for full Devils vs. Panthers series coverage. For more from the New Jersey perspective, check with In Lou We Trust, and for more from the Florida perspective, check with Litter Box Cats.

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