Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Five Questions: In Lou We Trust (Devils)

(Thanks to the gang at In Lou We Trust for another great offering. They're yet another member of Sports Blog Nation that has helped out immensely here at Cycle like the Sedins. Make sure to follow John Fischer for all your Devils needs at In Lou We Trust. )

1) What will your team need to do to beat the Carolina Hurricanes? Above all, they will need to be lethal on finishing the chances they do create. One of the big reasons why the Devils have had their best scoring season since 2000-01 has been that when they get a chance at scoring – a rebound, a deflection, a shot down low, etc. – they’ve been more successful at finding the net than missing it. It’s been a bit of an issue with the Devils recently and they could have defeated Carolina by much more than one goal with superior finishing.

Special teams play will be important in deciding the series, but if the Devils can roof it when Cam Ward is invariably down or find the hole through a screen more often – it will give the Devils the advantage they will need in the series. It’ll make the game that much harder for Carolina to respond from and put the Devils in a more comfortable position.

Even if Carolina does respond, the Devils will have still the confidence to regain or re-take the lead. With two lines (Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner, Elias-Zubrus-Gionta) capable of giving the opposition defense a lot to handle, along with some chipped-in efforts from a third line (usually whoever David Clarkson is with), New Jersey usually makes a lot possible. They just need to close the deal more often – be it in even strength, shorthanded, or on the power play.

2) What would need to happen for the Carolina Hurricanes to win? Basically, they would need to remain patient and hope one of the three performances come from the Devils. The first would be that the Devils come out flat and unfocused, and the Hurricanes are able to outwork them and drive the Devils to desperation – which will end up being too little, too late. This happened in the first game between these teams and it’s not improbable as the series goes on, especially if the Devils start slowly.

The second would be that the Devils would be emotionally and physically drained, resulting in the Devils playing some unsmart, uninspired hockey – enough for the ‘Canes to take advantage on the power play or during the run of play. This happened in the second game between the two teams and while I doubt it’ll happen right away, it could should the Devils keep marching to the penalty box whilst the penalty killers allow the pointmen (e.g. Anton Babchuk) to do what they will. But this is counting on the Devils not learning from past mistakes and so it is unlikely to start.

The third would result from the Devils being able to generate a lot of chances, not be able to finish those chances for one reason or another (e.g. Ward, defensemen blocking shots, Devils missing the net, bad luck, etc.), and the Hurricanes are able to put away a glorious chance or two late for the equalizer or the win. This happened in the third game, where the Devils gave up a 1-0 lead in the third and couldn’t find a response from Carolina’s equalizer or their go-ahead goal. This is more likely, given that this loss was relatively recent and it almost burned the Devils again in a 3-2 over Carolina on the last game of the season. Hence, I stress the importance of finishing in the first question.

3) Who is a fan favorite on your team that other fans may not know about? The Devils have a number of fan favorites, and it takes a lot of mistakes for one to become really disliked by the fans (e.g. Bobby Holik and his penalties). While you may already know about Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, and Zach Parise; I want to highlight David Clarkson. He’s essentially the new Randy McKay, a gritty forward of Devils past with a knack for scoring some goals. Only Clarkson has more panache. He loves to hit, he’ll get into the dirty stuff, and yet he performs wraparounds (enough to the point that they are now Clark-arounds to some), toe drags, step-overs, and finesse moves that you would expect from a young scoring winger instead of a gritty third liner. He skates hard on the forecheck, he dishes out some pain, he’s willing to shoot (he’s had nights of fewer than 10 minutes of icetime and still ends up with 5 shots on net), and he put up 17 goals and 12 assists in the process. Exactly the sort of player lots of teams – and their fans – would love to have on their team. And the fans here do love them, with some having tape over their “GOMEZ” jerseys and replaced with a hand-written “CLARKSON.” Given that he’s only 25, the best is yet to come and more will have jerseys originally stamped with Clarkson’s name on the back.

4) Who would be the team’s “Goat-to-be?” The media is already preparing to make Martin Brodeur the goat regardless of what actually happens in the series. They made him the goat for the last season’s first round loss to the Rangers. While he didn’t play well, it seemed everyone ignored that the entire team skated in a fog and a half-step behind the Rangers seemingly all series long. It wasn’t Brodeur’s fault they lost it. And it’ll happen again even if Brodeur maintains a 1.00 GAA or something ridiculous. But who listens to Devils fans like me when there’s a narrative to continue?

Anyway, as far as a player being a potential goat, a lot of eyes are looking at Bobby Holik and hoping and praying that he will not take costly, stupid penalties. Holik is a veteran center who’s been here before, he’s strong on faceoffs, and he’s not bad defensively – so he can spell John Madden for a few shifts. That said, he has developed a tendency for rushing the goaltender, hooking hands, and generally committing an infraction at the worst times. He’s seen the bench in the last two games in favor of goon Pierre-Luc Latourneau-Leblond, presumably to learn a lesson. Leblond won’t see any playoff time (I hope!), so it’ll be up to Holik to smarten up. If he hands out power plays to Carolina, he’s effectively hurting the Devils because the ‘Canes have lit up the Devils this season on power plays.

Similar to this, I’d like to name a group of players as potential goats – namely the Devils’ special teams units. The Devils have been great on even strength (1.25 5 on 5 F/A ratio – 2nd best in NHL), but the fans collectively hold their breath sometimes when they are killing a penalty or when they have a man advantage. The Devils have not been strong at killing penalties all season (79.9% success rate – 20th in the NHL); tending to do a good job for most of it, but the defense breaks down just enough for the other team to get a great shot off that Brodeur has a low chance (0% is low) of stopping. Likewise, the Devils traditionally haven’t been good on the power play and it’s surprising to even me that they have a power play success rate of 18.9% (and it’s slightly higher than Carolina’s 18.7%!) It’s still wasted opportunities more often than not, namely due to a lack of finishing the set-up plays.

5) What would be the top storyline? For the media, the top story line will be whether Martin Brodeur can get his playoff groove back. For this series, it will be whether the Devils can beat the Hurricanes in the playoffs. The Devils are 1-3 against Carolina this season and they are 1-2 in playoff series against them as well – their only win coming in 2001. Adding to this further, the Devils haven’t won a playoff game in Carolina since 2001. The Devils have a lot to prove here and if they are able Carolina has went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in the two years they beat New Jersey, so the Hurricanes faithful will be looking forward to see their favorite team take it to the Devils. It could be that the road to the Cup runs through New Jersey. However, they stumbled (literally) in their last two games of the season after an impressive 9 game winning streak. The issue for the ‘Canes will be whether it was just a bump in the road or the start of a perhaps long-overdue slump. In my opinion, how both teams enter this series and the past playoff history between the two teams are the most compelling issues with respect to the series, more than any matchup or bitterness between the two teams.

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