NEW JERSEY VS. CAROLINA
Does Martin Brodeur have something to prove? His play after breaking the all-time Wins record (a much overhyped accomplishment, given that Wins are a team stat) was less than inspiring, and suggests that he may have needed some rest down the stretch. Will he be at full strength against Carolina?
Cam Ward has finally raised his play to the level he displayed back in the 2006 playoffs, when he took the Hurricanes to the finals. Will he be able to do it again or will the man at the other end of the ice have something to say about that?
All eyes will be on the men between the pipes when this series opens on Wednesday.
New Jersey Offense vs. Carolina Defense
At even strength, New Jersey sports an effective offense, scoring 5.6 GVT above average. However, Carolina has been even more effective on defense, with a 11.4 GVT above average. Ward does not contribute much to this number; the Hurricanes rely on team defense (7.7 GVT above average) rather than goaltending (3.7 GVT above average) at even strength.
Unsurprisingly, Zach Parise is the Devils' most dangerous player at even strength, easily leading the team with 61 ES points. Robbed of his main man status on the power-play, which produced 48 goales in 2005-06, Brian Gionta can still be a serious threat. He was third on the team in ES points with 45, behind only Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. Power-play scoring often fuddles a player's scoring stats. A player may appear to lose a great deal of his effectiveness, but his reduced scoring totals may simply be a result of a reduced role with the man advantage. A large part of Gionta's decline in production has to do with how he is used on the power-play. However, at even strength, Gionta's speed can be an effective weapon against a Carolina defense that is not terribly mobile.
After three seasons with a save percentage that hovering around .900 (.898 in 2005-06 combining his regular-season and playoff performances, then .897 and .904), Cam Ward took a big step forward this year, recording a .916 figure. Whether this is a statistical blip or a true improvement in performance remains to be seen, although Ward should be nearly at his career best now given his age (25).
Carolina Offense vs. New Jersey Defense
Carolina's offense is, well, mediocre at even strength (and on the power-play, and when short-handed). As such, they will likely have a very hard time penetrating New Jersey's excellent defense, which finished 24.6 GVT above average, second only to Boston in the league. Though neither their skater defense nor their goaltending was among the best in the league, both were very good and they combine to produce a Devils team which is very difficult to score on.
The Hurricanes have more depth of scoring at even strength than the Devils do, but don't have a big point-producer like the Devils have in Parise. Eric Staal always seems ready to score more than he actually does, and perhaps he can improve on his sub-point-per-game production, but it's unlikely against the solid New Jersey defense. The aging Rod Brind'Amour, Sergei Samsonov and Scott Walker aren't what they used to be in any situation.
The Devils' defense corps lacks the stars that defined it in the past. There is no Scott Stevens or Scott Niedermayer here. What they have is a group of solidly effective NHL defensemen. When a tough defender like Colin White is on your third pairing at even strength, you know the team has depth at the position. The ES ice time is spread around evenly among Martin, Oduya, Havelid, Salvador, Mottau and White, each of who average between 15:50 and 17:31 during the season, all playing at least 73 games. They're not spectacular, and they don't get many accolades, but they make getting to Brodeur quite difficult.
Get past these men and you still have to beat the now-legendary Brodeur. Now I've been arguing that Brodeur's greatness has been overstated for many years. From 1998-99 to 2001-02, his save percentage was never higher than .910 and for three of those four years it was a pedestrian .906. Since then he has improved though, finally showing an impressive .920+ save percentage in the two years before this season, for the first time since 1996-97. His .916 mark this year can probably be partly attributed to injury, so he should be very effective in the playoffs.
Don't get me wrong; Brodeur is not nearly as dominant as he has been made out to be, but he has been a very good goaltender for quite a long time and very durable until this year.
New Jersey Power-Play vs. Carolina Penalty-Kill
Both the Devils' power-play and the Hurricanes' penalty-killing are nothing special. New Jersey doesn't draw a lot of penalties, and Carolina doesn't take a lot of penalties, so this shouldn't be a crucial part of the series at any rate.
Carolina Power-Play vs. New Jersey Penalty-Kill
Surprisingly, the Devils don't do very well when down a man. They were 3.6 GVT below average on short-handed defense. However, they made up for it by being 4.6 GVT above average on short-handed offense. They have several players who are dangerous when killing penalties. Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac, Gionta, Parise, Langenbrunner and John Madden all had three or more short-handed points, as did White.
Carolina tends to draw a good number of penalties, and this forms the whole of their advantage when they are a man up. Their offense and defense are both slightly below league-average in this regard. The usual suspects (Staal and Whitney) lead the team on offense on the power-play, and Brind'Amour pads his scoring totals here as well. The Canes don't have a real point-man on the power-play, but Joe Corvo certainly does a good impersonation of one. He managed only 22 power-play points, which led their defensemen by a large margin. Joni Pitkanen is offensively gifted and gets first-unit ice time; I'm not sure how he produced only 14 points on the power-play. He simply needs to produce more.
Season Series Results
The Hurricanes won the season series three games to one, with three of the four games being decided by a single goal, and the other by two. Carolina scored 11 goals to New Jersey's 8. This might seem to indicate that the Hurricanes are able to beat the Devils, and indeed they are. However, putting much stock in a mere four games is a foolish thing to do. These games were close and could have gone either way, much as their playoff games will likely do. The Devils are the better team, but they will not dominate the Hurricanes.
Injuries and Intangibles
Matt Cullen has a foot problem, but will probably be ready to play against New Jersey. He's provides depth scoring for the Hurricanes, but if he were not able to play it would not cripple the team. Other than Cullen, the Hurricanes have no significant injury concerns.
New Jersey's only current injury is to Kevin Weekes, who is third on the goalie depth chart at this point. His absence is irrelevant to the Devils; Brodeur is going to be starting every game unless he plays horribly, in which case Scott Clemmensen will get a bit of playing time.
Brodeur played only 31 regular-season games, after battling injury for the first time in his career. He obviously has an enormous amount of playoff experience, but perhaps he had too much regular-season experience down the stretch this year. His play suffered as his playing time piled up. If Brodeur cannot play to his full capabilities, the Devils will suffer for it. They still have enough of a team to pull it out against Carolina, even if the goalie does not play up to par.
Despite New Jersey's past playoff success, and the reputation of Martin Brodeur, the Devils should have a fairly tough battle with the Hurricanes. Based on regular-season results, New Jersey has about a 58% chance of winning the series. The Canes should put up a fight, but in the end succumb to the better team.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6 games.