New Jersey-Carolina Preview
(Season Series: Hurricanes 3-1)
New Jersey versus Carolina.
Devils versus Hurricanes.
Number three versus number six.
The upstart Southeast underdogs against the perennially triumphant Atlantic Division aces.
In one of the most intriguing first-round matchups of the 2009 Stanley Playoffs, the piecemeal Carolina Hurricanes will attempt to play the role of super-spoiler beginning Wednesday night as they travel to the Garden State to play the suddenly nervous New Jersey Devils.
Don’t get it twisted, this series will be tight. These teams are both experienced and have a history, having met three previous times in the playoffs (Carolina coming out victorious on two occasions). For gosh sakes, in 2006, the Hurricanes’ shocking upset of the Devils jettisoned the team to a Stanley Cup championship.
These are different times however.
The Devils were a dominating club this season (Please see New Jersey’s multiple winning streaks or the final six games of the regular season). The three-time Stanley Cup winners are led by snipers Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner and Patrik Elias and are bolstered by returnees Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik and Brendan Shanahan. The Devils have built their team around grit and balanced scoring and there is no inherent anomaly in their make-up.
The surprising Hurricanes, however, have tweaked their line-up substantially over the past year and have struggled at times with scattered holes on their bench (mainly on defense). The Hurricanes have two proven scoring lines and a Conn Smythe winning goalie in Cam Ward but the acquisition (or re-acquisition) of Erik Cole at the trade deadline exposed a perceived lack of depth in the leadership department.
This series will be long, intense and at times, nasty. May the best team win.
Here is a positional break down of the two teams:
The Devils are backstopped by Martin Brodeur, arguably the greatest goalie of the post-expansion National Hockey League era. This season, Brodeur missed 50 games with a left biceps/elbow injury and still managed to break Patrick Roy’s all-time wins record. Marty posted impressive numbers for the Devs this season (31 games played, 19-9-3, .916 GAA, five shutouts) and was surprisingly unaffected by his lengthy layoff. A phenomenal big-game goaltender, Brodeur has been the quintessential archetype for countless young goaltenders. Though Brodeur missed more games than ever before this season, he was still dominant. Brodeur always steps his game up for the playoffs and was disgusted by the series loss to the Hurricanes three years back. Having Kevin Weekes and his knowledge of the Carolina Hurricanes shooters provides a nice edge for Coach Brent Sutter.
Hurricanes stopper Cam Ward posted the best regular season numbers of his career in 2008’09, winning 39 games, posting six shutouts and proving along the way that he is a top-5 goaltender. Ward is comfortable playing a lot of games and has grown accustomed to a less-experienced Canes defense that takes more chances. Ward has enjoyed so much success early in his career that it is hard to believe that he is only 25 years old. There are no flaws in Ward’s game that I am aware of and the Hurricanes will ride him as far as they can.
Edge: New Jersey
The Devils have six solid defenseman, but no number one and few with Stanley Cup experience. Veterans Colin White and Paul Martin have been to the big show with the Devils before but rearguards such as Johnny Oduya, Niclas Havelid, Andy Greene and Mike Mottau are Cup neophytes. White is still rough-and-tumble and Martin is dynamic on the power-play but the Devils often struggle when they are caught skating around in their own zone. The Devils have always been a team that plays better with the lead (which team isn’t?) so the Devils would be wise to distribute their ice-time efficiently to avoid mismatches against the high-octane Hurricanes offense.
The Canes also boast six good defenseman, but with no real number one. Joe Corvo had 38 points this season and provides top quality speed from the back end but he is not an overwhelming offensive force like say Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green. The Hurricanes employ more of a distributive model on the blueline. Anton Babchuk had an offensive outburst in the second half of the season and Joni Pitkanen eventually became more comfortable in his own abilities but the Hurricanes rely on the strength of their forwards for most of their offense. The Top six also includes Devil-killer Niclas Wallin, Dennis Seidenberg and Tim Gleason, players who have varying degrees of playoff experience.
The Devils have a small, albeit highly-skilled group of forwards that put up some pretty impressive offensive numbers this season. Zach Parise led the team with 45 goals and 94 points, while seven forwards scored 15 goals or more. Patrik Elias had an undervalued regular season, notching 31 goals and 47 assists, at times displaying the offensive mastery that was so instrumental during the Devils 2000 Stanley Cup run. Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston, Brian Gionta and Dainius Zubrus round out the top two lines and complement the exceptional speed and stickhandling abilities of Parise and Elias. The real dynamo on the Devils though is David Clarkson. He has turned into one of the most valuable utility forwards in the NHL as he supplies both physicality and offense. Clarkson registered 17 goals this season and can drop the gloves with the best of ’em.
The Canes forwards are not nearly as skilled as the Devils, but they are led by one of the game’s best in Eric Staal. Forwards Ray Whitney, Rod Brind’Amour and Tuomo Ruutu were solid for the Hurricanes all year and are exemplary of a well spread-out first two scoring lines. Sergei Samsonov quietly put up 48 points this year while 2006 Stanley Cup winner Erik Cole boosted the Canes offense late in the season after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline. Grinders Chad Larose, Scott Walker and Ryan Bayda are gritty, hard-checking forwards who will be effective against a talented team like the Devils, but they are limited offensively.
Edge: New Jersey
Prediction: Devils in 7. This series will be close but New Jersey will prevail because of players like Jamie Langenbunner, Colin White, Brendan Shanahan and David Clarkson, who are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Isn’t that what it really boils down to?
For Illegal Curve, I’m Ezra Ginsburg.