NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 06: Zach Parise #9 of the New Jersey Devils skates with the puck as Shawn Matthias #18 of the Florida Panthers defends during their game on January 6, 2012 at The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils are right back where they belong.
After missing the playoffs last season for the first time in 14 years, the Devils find themselves once again playing for the Stanley Cup. After finishing the season with 48 wins, the third highest total in franchise history, the team clinched the sixth seed and will open against the Southeast champion Florida Panthers.
In some ways, that may the best draw of the opening round.
Florida enters the playoffs after a 12 year layoff, fresh off clinching their first ever division title. But they're also just 2-3-5 in their last ten games, and allowed a team like the Washington Capitals to have a chance at winning the division crown. They also have one of the league's worst offenses. They're 27th in both goals and points, and tied for 25th in assists. They've also allowed 209 goals, good for 16th in the league.
Those numbers, however, don't tell the whole story. Against the Devils, Florida went 2-2 this season, scoring 11 goals. The trio of Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss accounted for seven of them, with Versteeg netting five goals. It's a line that the Devils know they have to shut down.
"Versteeg, I feel like he got two goals every game against us," Zach Parise told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. We'll have to pay attention. They have a good line and they throw (defenseman Brian) Campbell out there with them too, so they have that four-man attack. You have to make sure you're back pressuring hard."
Also, ex-Devil Scott Clemmensen may get the start despite being the number two goals. Clemmensen is 4-0-0 with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage in five starts against New Jersey.
The Devils enter the game with some pretty impressive streaks of its own. The team has won their last six games in a row, and set the post-expansion NHL record for penalty kill efficiency, with an 89.58 percent conversion rate. They also broke team records in both PK percentage and power-play goals against (27).
New Jersey also finished the season with 102 points, eclipsing the point total of the Panthers by eight points.
Devils coach Pete DeBoer, who will be facing his former team in the first round, said the timing for the playoffs couldn't be any better for the Devils.
"If you can write a script of how you want to enter the playoffs, obviously, you want to win six in a row," DeBoer told Gulitti. "We're playing some good hockey right now. Our confidence is high. We're scoring some goals. You feel good where you're at and the trick is that we make sure we carry that into the playoffs."
Check out SBNation New York all week long for in-depth previews on the first round matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers. Also, be sure to check out SBNation's Devils blog, In Lou We Trust. For news on the Panthers, check out Litter Box Cats.