Saturday, March 24, 2007


Game: Devils @ Florida, 4 of 4

The New Jersey Devils finish their time in Florida by visiting the Florida Panthers tonight.

Local TV: Fox Sports NY
Local Radio: 660 AM, WFAN
Devils Record Vs. Panthers: 2-1-0 Preview

First things first, will any of the four injured Devils forwards return tonight? The answer: no. In Tom Gulitti's article in today's Bergen Record, neither Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, John Madden, and Erik Rasmussen will play tonight. There is hope for the future, in Gulitti's article:

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said Elias and Rasmussen "should be ready" for Tuesday's game at Nassau Coliseum against the Islanders. While Madden has yet to return to the ice, Elias and Gionta have been skating. Gionta is not eligible to come off long-term injured reserve until April 1, though.

"Patrik is feeling much better," Lamoriello said. "He's skating hard. They're both skating hard, but it's skating hard and what happens the day after, two days after. ... We want to get them back playing 100 percent."

I only hope Elias is 100% healthy when he returns. I don't want a repeat of what happened to Scott Gomez earlier this season to Elias, especially this late in the season.

Now, as far as tonight is concerned, let's look at where the Florida Panthers are. They have played well recently, only losing 4 in their last 12 games. However, they sit in twelfth place in the Eastern Conference with 75 points. That's 7 points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes and the Panthers would have to leapfrog 3 teams ahead of them with the closest team (Toronto) being 5 points ahead of Florida. Short of a miracle, they are on the outside looking in at this point. Their last game was a disaster for goaltender Ed Belfour, letting in four goals to the Ottawa Senators on 9 shots. The Panthers lost 4-2. Nonetheless, Belfour will likely start against Martin Brodeur.

If there is one Panther the Devils need to keep a close eye on, it's Olli Jokinen. He has 4 goals and 5 assists in his last 3 games, including a 2 goal and 4 assist performance against the New York Islanders in a 8-5 victory last week. Jokinen leads the Panthers in scoring with 35 goals and 47 assists and he will likely be the go-to guy for the Panthers tonight. The Devils should also be wary of Florida's centers in general as their top 4 scorers are listed as centers. Behind Jokinen there is the power forward Nathan Horton (28 G, 37 A), Josef Stumpel (20 G, 32 A), and Stephen Weiss (18 G, 26 A). Granted, Florida head coach Jacques Martin uses those guys on the wing; they aren't running four lines of scoring like, say, Buffalo. While they aren't Tampa Bay, stopping Jokinen at the least would go a long way in New Jersey's efforts to defeating Florida tonight.

Third, it is imperative that the Devils get a win tonight. They have lost their last 3 and while the 7-2 loss to Carolina last week was clearly the only horrible game of the three; now is the time to assert New Jersey's quality. Yes, despite being without Elias, Madden, and Gionta, the Devils can and should win this game. The PZL unit which has done fairly well this season needs to really make something of themselves. Despite having 6 rookies in the lineup, the Devils have held their own before falling to Toronto and Tampa Bay. They are facing the only team on this road trip that will likely not make the playoffs. The next two games are back-to-back games another team looking to make the playoffs (and local rivals Islanders) followed by the Buffalo Sabres who lead the conference.

The time for giving up the first goal early and not showing enough fire in the first period should be over with. The amount of "easy" shots on net for the goaltender to stop should be reduced, especially considering it's Ed Belfour in net. It is imperative that the Devils should establish the tone of the game early and this can not be done on the road if the other team is scoring first. The Devils aren't built to blow teams out, so expecting that would be ludicrous. However, for "Devils Hockey" to work and earn a win tonight, scoring first is vital. Playing from behind amidst injuries to top players has proven to be a receipe for a loss in the last three games. It will be come four if this does not change. Remember this. Despite the Panthers being unlikely to not make the post season, they are mathematically still able to make it. They're at home and the team as well as the fans know this. The Devils need to score first to avoid momentum giving Florida the edge they need to hand another loss to the Devils.

Should the Devils not win, there will be a serious cause for concern for the remaining games in the series. The Devils going into the Nassau Coliseum and HSBC Arena under-performing will make those already tough games nearly too difficult to win there, in my opinion.

That being said, I will remain hopeful and optimistic because A) I am a Devils fan and B) I can't control what will happen on the ice or how the Devils will perform. With respect to the latter point, I feel it is silly to be overly pessimistic and/or hope for the worst; if I have no control over these matters, there is no harm for wishing for the best. GO DEVILS. WIN.


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