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This season, New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer has used Patrik Elias, rookie phenom Adam Henrique, and recently healthy Travis Zajac between elite scorers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to form something that the Florida Panthers cannot boast.
A legitimate top scoring line with superstar talent.
The trio of Versteeg, Weiss and Fleischmann has played very well for the Panthers this season and is a big reason why the Panthers claimed their first Southeast Division title in franchise history.
However, the numbers don't lie—the aforementioned Florida trio has combined for 172 points. Kovalchuk and Parise have scored 152 between just the two of them. Add in Henrique, and that total jumps to 203. Add Elias instead, and it jumps to 230.
Ilya Kovalchuk, in particular, can be a nightmare to defend, and not just because of his skill on and off the puck in the offensive zone—he takes a lot of double shifts, making it difficult to deploy one shutdown defense pairing against him, especially when the Devils have home ice.
Kovalchuk led the Devils in time on ice this season at 24:26, which is also good for 18th in the NHL amongst all skaters and first overall for forwards by almost two full minutes per game. It will have to be a team effort from the Florida Panthers defensemen in order to keep the top line for the Devils in check.
Conversely, the Florida Panthers rely on a more balanced scoring attack. This team is built not unlike Western Conference teams that have experienced regular season success, such as the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes. They stress team defense and reliability in the defensive zone and spread their scoring across all four lines.
On any given night, the Panthers can get an offensive outburst from the top of their lineup down to their bottom. Rather than two true scoring lines and two checking/defensive lines, as is often the paradigm in the NHL, the Panthers expect all four lines to contribute offensively while defending well at the same time.
Compare the top line for New Jersey with that of Florida—Kovalchuk, Elias and Parise are a combined minus-23 on the year, while the trio of Versteeg, Weiss and Fleischmann are plus-2.
That said, I still have to give the edge to the team with the elite talent up front when it comes to the playoffs.