The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and by the end of it you'll feel like The Walking Dead. Hence, zombie motif!
And honor of least compelling first-round series goes to …
It's not the Florida Panthers' fault that backing into the Southeast Division championship has earned them the "most unworthy playoff team since the lockout" moniker from the punditry. Which completely undermines what an incredible story the construction and success of this team really has been this season.
It's not the Devils' fault that they're still portrayed as the trap-happy, offensively challenged team despite being middle of the pack in goal scoring (2.63) with the League's fifth-best scorer in Ilya Kovalchuck.
Add in a former coach taking on the team that fired him and a goalie taking on his former team, and at least you have some sizzle.
And plastic rats. Who doesn't love plastic rats?
Here is your Panthers vs. Devils preview, complete with Zombified observations …
Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
April 13: New Jersey at Florida, 7 p.m.
April 15: New Jersey at Florida, 7:30 p.m.
April 17: Florida at New Jersey, 7 p.m.
April 19: Florida at New Jersey, 7 p.m.
April 21: New Jersey at Florida, 6:30 p.m.*
April 24: Florida at New Jersey, TBA*
April 26: New Jersey at Florida, TBA*
Tomas Fleischmann led the Panthers in goals (27) and points (61), playing 82 games for the first time in his NHL career. Veteran Stephen Weiss, making his first playoff appearance after 637 games, was second with 57 points. Kris Versteeg was clutch in scoring 23 goals. One wild card: Marcel Goc, who only has 11 goals but has a knack for buzzing the net.
Ilya Kovalchuk had an MVP-caliber season for the Devils with 37 goals and 46 assists, while skating an astounding 24:26 per game. But one of the reasons the Devils were so hard to defend was the play of Patrik Elias on their other scoring line: 26 goals and 52 assists, second on the team. Zach Parise posted 69 points and a minus-5 in his walk year, helping rookie Adam Henrique (51 points) to challenge for the freshman scoring lead. But the Devils' hidden gem this year: David Clarkson, whose 30 goals and stout power forward play have been essential.
The Devils are going to try and control the puck and make their mark with their top six. The Panthers are going to try and create neutral zone turnovers and then cycle deep.
Brian Campbell was one of the most important acquisitions in franchise history. Not only because he plays 26:53 a night and had 53 points, but because it was his addition that sent up the bat signal to the free agents that Dale Tallon was doing something right.
Jason Garrison was a sensation earlier in the season, scoring seven power-play goals in 2011; but he managed only two power-play assists in his last 20 games. Mike Weaver has been steady, and Dmitry Kulikov can bring it physically. Veteran Ed Jovanovski and young Erik Gudbranson have run hot and cold; the latter mostly cold.
The Devils lack a shutdown pair on defense, instead icing a team with some puck-movers and a few veteran bangers. Marek Zidlicky has eight points in 22 games since coming over from Minnesota. Mark Fayne brings size and some offense, while shot-blockin' Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador give the defense a physical edge. Look for Andy Greene to play in key situations; and what will the Devils get out of rookie Adam Larsson in the playoffs?
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the Panther most likely to survive is Stephen Weiss. Because if he can keep his sanity in Florida for 637 games, well …
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the Devil most likely to survive is Zach Parise because, honestly, who could eat those dimples? (Least likely to survive: Marty Brodeur, whose carcass could feed a zombie family for three years.)
Martin Brodeur hasn't won a playoff series since 2007, posting a GAA of over 3.00 and a save percentage under .900 in two of his last three playoff losses. He's been solid this season, but not spectacular; if he lays an egg or two in the first round, which Pete DeBoer have the audacity to start Johan Hedberg? Better question: Would Lamoriello coach the following game? The Devils go as far as Marty takes them.
The Panthers ranked 12th in GAA for the season (2.63) thanks to a tandem of Jose Theodore (2.46, .917) and Scott Clemmensen (2.57, .913), who won Florida's division title clinching game. Neither put the fear of the hockey gods in you, but Clemmensen at least has a little extra motivation to stick to his former team.
The Panthers are that zombie created in a lab from different parts from other zombies; the rotting flesh blending together to somehow create the lovely smell of black raspberry vanilla from Bath and Body Works.
The Devils are that zombie that takes an ax to the skull, a bullet to the temple and is set on fire … and yet keeps lumbering along to the annoyance of all the other zombies.
A little added bonus here, dramatically: Pete DeBoer of the Devils will face his old franchise, if not his old team thanks to the roster turnover. Dale Tallon pulled the trigger; and while DeBoer should probably thank him for it, there's a little revenge angle there. He's done well coaxing offense out of this Devils roster.
Kevin Dineen has the Panthers playing a tightly wound system that creates turnovers in the neutral zone and limits teams' abilities to break out with long passes. Offensively, there's limited pop, but the Panthers don't often get blown out and have only lost once in regulation when leading into the second period (with 24 wins overall). Alas, an overtime loss in the playoffs doesn't earn you a point ...
The Panthers power play was seventh in the NHL at 18.5 percent efficiency on 286 chances. The Devils were 14th at 17.2 percent in 267 chances.
On the kill, the Devils were the top team in the NHL at 89.6 percent in 259 times shorthanded, scoring an outstanding 15 shorties. The Panthers were 25th at 79.5 percent on 239 chances.
In order to defeat the Panthers, you need to get a lead and then turn the tables defensively, and the Devils can do both of these things.
In order to defeat the Devils, you need to frustrate Kovalchuk — either with tight checking or extra-curricular stuff — and pepper Brodeur, who doesn't have the mobility, rebound control or the quality defense in front of his that he once did.
Devils in 5. New Jersey enters the series playing better hockey, and have more offensive weapons than the Panthers. Florida could give them fits defensively, but the Devils' opportunistic offense won't be frustrated. We'll see the rats fly in Florida, and empty seats in Jersey, but in the end we'll see the Devils advance.