The New Jersey Devils wrapped up the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last night, defeating the Detroit Red Wings, 2-1, at the Joe Louis Arena. They'll face the Southeast Division champs, which might be one of the best draws for any team heading into the postseason.
But who, exactly, will be the first round opponent? Well, there's where the water gets a little murky. The Florida Panthers, who have led the division for almost the entire season, have went into a 1-3-5 slide, giving hope to the Washington Capitals for a division crown. It's a dogfight to the finish, one which should benefit New Jersey.
If you ask me who the Devils should face, I wouldn't hesitate with my answer - the Florida Panthers.
Looking at the season series, it would seem like the answer should be Washington. New Jersey won the season series, taking two of three from the Caps. They outscored Washington, 13-8, although two of those came in the shootout. With Washington looking like a shell of its former self, and possibly down to its third goalie for the playoff run, most fans will probably root for Washington to hop over Florida and give the Devils an easy looking opponent.
Washington, however, has that all important playoff experience. They haven't made it past the second round, but they found a winning formula last season. It helped them beat the New York Rangers and, if they hadn't run into a Tampa Bay Lightning team, could have carried them to an Eastern Conference title. The Caps have also been operating in "playoff mode" for most of the second half, making their run to the top eight. Say what you will about the struggles of Alexander Ovechkin, but I think this Washington team is a tough first round matchup.
Meanwhile, there are the Panthers. They played the Devils tough this season, with the teams splitting the four-game season series. Devils fans can't say the name Kris Versteeg without it leaving a sour taste in their mouths. But after scrolling through the names on the roster, there's no one that can really swing the matchup in Florida's favor. Most of their roster doesn't have that ultimate experience factor, and a deeper look at the statistics reveal just how favorable the matchup becomes.
Florida has one of the worst offenses in the NHL. They're 26th in the league in points and assists, and tied for 26th in goals. They have two - yes, two! - skaters with twenty or more goals. Some may call that great depth, but I call that offensive ineptitude. They've been shut out seven times this season, including four times in the second half of the season. They average just under 2.5 goals per game, and those averages tend to plummet during the playoffs.
On the flip side, the Panthers aren't a terrific defensive team. They've allowed 226 goals, good for 17th in the entire league. They're 18th in the league in shots against, and the combination of Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen, Jacob Markstrom and Brian Foster have posted the 15th-ranked goals-against average in the league. A middling offense and a so-so defense don't usually mix well in the playoffs.
The Southeast Division hasn't been great this season. The Lightning took a step back, the Capitals dropped off considerably and the Winnipeg Jets were…well…the Jets. No playoff matchup is easy, but the Devils have a favorable one against either the Caps or the Panthers. But if I had the choice, I'd take the Panthers every time.