Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.
Oh no, not another series in which a hot Carolina goalie outplays Martin Brodeur. Oh no, not another series in which a tenacious group of forwards led by the likes of Erik Cole (weren't we done with him in the Eastern Conference?) controls play both physically and offensively. Oh no, not a Southeast team on a 13-1-2 run to the finish, ready to rock as a listless Devils team fails to answer the opening buzzer. Oh no, not these guys again.
Alas, it's the Hurricanes and the Devils, which is great news for hockey marketers that want their least-sexy postseason foes matched up in the same series. And by that we mean the Devils have already discounted some of their tickets for the first two home games. The tale of the tape, coming up.
Season Series (Hurricanes won, 3-1)
Forwards (Advantage: New Jersey)
The Devils were famously once called an "interchangeable flock of forwards" by Colin Campbell during the trap years. Well, they don't employ the same style of stifling defense (to the shock of lazy observers of the game), and their forwards are a lot less interchangeable.
The top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner has thrived together as a unit all season, with Parise blossoming into a star to the tune of 45 goals and 94 points. Save for some recent injuries, the second unit of Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus and Brian Gionta has also skated together, while the ageless Brendan Shanahan has seen time with the Devils' dynamic checking duo of Jay Pandolfo and John Madden. Brian Rolston and a cast of thousands round out the final line, as the team's still figuring out where Bobby Holik fits in the postseason.
Cole's return from the Edmonton Oilers transformed the top line for Carolina, as he, Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu formed a game-changing unit. Leading point scorer Ray Whitney, Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose make up the second line, although Bubba from Canes Country assumes that Matt Cullen will move back into Jokinen's slot when he's back from injury.
The third line is delightfully enigmatic, as Rod Brind'Amour had a torrid last month of the season despite still lugging around a minus-23; and Sergei Samsonov continued his career of being Sergei Samsonov.
Defensemen (Advantage: Even)
The only time New Jersey has eliminated Carolina from the postseason was in 2001, when Scott Stevens forever altered the career of Shane Willis with a clean and completely legal hit, and then sent Ron Francis somewhere near Pluto with a check later in the series.
There's no Stevens on this team. For a while, Colin White was the only true banger on defense for New Jersey, but Bryce Salvador rebounded from a so-so season to play some good physical hockey. When paired with deadline pickup Niclas Havelid, they've played well.
But the two standouts on the Devils' defense are Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya. Both are solid two-way players with fantastic skating ability; Martin's much steadier, while Oduya's offensive rushes can be a difference-maker.
Here's what the Devils don't have: a dude with 16 goals from the blueline. Anton Babchuk has been a revelation for the Canes, pumping in nine power-play goals.
The Hurricanes defense doesn't have a shut-down guy, but Coach Paul Maurice has them playing much better in their own zone. Players like Dennis Seidenberg, Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo are D-men that jump into the play and activate the offense. That could cause some problems for the Devils, especially if the forwards get traffic in front of Martin Brodeur. Speaking of which ...
Goalies (Advantage: Even)
Blasphemy? Check the facts: Outside of a goof-up in his last game, Cam Ward was one of the best goalies on the planet for the last month of the season. Unless the Devils bomb him in the first two games, Ward's confidence makes him Brodeur's equal coming into this thing. (And if he does get bombed, what's the worst that can happen? The Canes replace their starter with a backup and then win the Cup, as history repeats?)
Brodeur has looked sharp after a stretch where he looked softer than his own midsection. Since the Devils' last Cup in 2003, Brodeur's been very human in the postseason, and especially in last year's first-round loss to the Rangers. He should be focused, he should be rested, he should be sharp after missing most of the season with an injury ... but the man they call "the best goalie alive" needs the live up to the moniker again.
If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...
A doughnut-themed "Road To Perdition," in which Brind'Amour actually looks creepier than Jude Law did.
Power Play (Advantage: Even)
The Devils (15th, 18.9 percent conversion rate) and the Hurricanes (18th, 18.7 percent) have run hot and cold all season, although the emergence of Babchuk has certainly given the Canes man-advantage some momentum. Note that the Devils have the least number of power-play chances in the NHL, while the Hurricanes had the second-most. And yes, that is an indication of how hard the Carolina forwards work in comparison.
Penalty Kill (Advantage: Carolina)
The Canes (19th, 80.4 percent) have a statistic advantage over the Devils (21st, 79.9), but also a mental edge coming into the playoffs. Against Carolina, Jersey had about as many quality kills as a blind octogenarian hit man: The Canes went 7-for-16 on the power play in the regular season. It's messing with the Devils' heads.
Fight We'd Love To See
David Clarkson against anyone, but the Canes aren't exactly the Raleigh Maulers in the fight department. Which is too bad, because Clarkson's good at two things: pointless wrap-around attempts and ending a brawl with a good, stiff jab:
Coaches (Advantage: Carolina)
Both coaches made an undeniable difference behind the bench in the regular season. Sutter kept the Devils together emotionally and rededicated the team to its core system of play once Brodeur went down with the injury. Maurice rejoined the Hurricanes franchise after Peter Laviolette was fired, and promptly transformed the team on offense, defense and special teams.
Maurice gets the nod here because Sutter was a surly failure in his playoff debut last season, while the Carolina coach has a conference title to his credit.
But Sutter does earn extra credit for being of the least photogenic coaches in the NHL, in that snarly Gollum-ish way:
Best Player Nicknames (Advantage: Carolina)
The Devils have names both obvious (Jay "Pando" Pandolfo, Brendan "Shanny" Shanahan, Martin "Marty" Brodeur) and awesome (John "Mad Dog" Madden).
The Hurricanes also have names both obvious (Rod "Brindy" Brind'Amour, Cam "Wardo" Ward) and awesome (Ray "The Wizard" Whitney).
But Carolina also Niclas Wallin, whose proclivity for overtime goals earned him the nickname "The Secret Weapon." Which means he's as punishing as Jeff Speakman ... only less perfect and more secreter.
Home Ice (Advantage: Carolina)
The teams were both pretty darn good at home, with the Devils (28-12-1) just a shade better than the Canes (26-14-1). This is the first non-Rangers playoff series for the Devils at The Rock, and the franchise is notorious for failing to sellout first-round games. That said, the fans make it a tough place to play when motivated.
Carolina, meanwhile, becomes a tailgating Mecca of awesome during the playoffs, and RBC gets L-O-U-D during the postseason. The Devils lost all three games in Carolina in 2002, and lost three of four in 2006.
For the Devils, do check out In Lou We Trust, 2 Man Advantage, and Interchangeable Parts. As you can see from some of the links above, Tom Gulitti's reporting on Fire & Ice is also essential.
For the Hurricanes, Bubba's Canes Country is a gold-standard blog. The 850 The Buzz radio blog has been serving up goodies all season. Red and Black Hockey and Carolina on Ice are daily destinations. And it's good to see the Acid Queen blogging again.
No disrespect intended towards Jamie Langenbrunner, but Rod Brind'Amour could probably still snap him in two at the age of 63.
Pests (Advantage: Carolina)
Clarkson's an agitator; and Holik has made a career of physically asserting himself when he isn't modeling for the evil baby on "The Simpsons."
Although there's no Sean Avery to wave his stick and run his mouth in front of Brodeur, there is the existence of Tim
Clownboy Conboy of the Hurricanes; a player so dedicated to the gentlemanly sportsmanship of the game that he once bit Steve Downie. Steve Downie ...
Potential Unsung Heroes
Also a pest for Carolina is Chad LaRose, but we're listing him here because he's proven to be a tenacious player around the net this season. He's an impact player with four game-winning goals, and could score a key one at the right time. But like we said: He's also an annoying shadow of a pest. To put it in terms Carolina fans can understand: He ain't draftin', he's tailgate'n.
For the Devils ... well, at some point Brian Rolston will become Brian Rolston again, right?
Prediction: Hurricanes in six.
By no means an upset, as this outcome is probably the majority opinion by now. But the hot goalie plus the hot team plus the power-play that's clicking plus the previous bad juju for the Devils against the Canes equals FAIL for New Jersey.
Take It Away YouTube Superstar Steve Dangle!