Dmitry Kulikov is the Florida Panthers' exciting 21-year-old Russian defenseman who is already third in team seniority among critical players, behind only veteran center Stephen Weiss and fellow defenseman Jason Garrison.
In the past three seasons the Panthers are 5-3-1, a 61.1 winning percentage in games against New Jersey when Dmitry has played.
They are only 1-2, 33.3 winning percentage, in games against New Jersey when he has been out of the lineup.
In those nine games he has averaged a modest 19 minutes per game, amassed four points and been a +2. One of those points was a game-winning overtime goal January 15th, 2011.
The Panthers have dramatically improved this past season under the guidance of General Manager Dale Tallon and Coach Kevin Dineen. In fact, the transformation has been amazingly and quickly successful. New talent has been brought on board including defenseman Mike Weaver in 2010 and then defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell in 2011. Goalie Jose Theodore as well as forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg and Marcel Goc have all been added in 2011. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson is a rookie this year.
Testimony to the improvement in the Panthers and Kulikov's role in that improvement is the following exhibit.
2009/10—New Jersey out-shoots Florida 144-83; Kulikov averages 16.9 minutes.
2010/11—New Jersey out-shoots Florida 118-99; Kulikov averages 19.6 minutes.
2011/12—New Jersey out-shoots Florida 114-105; Kulikov averages 23.9 minutes.
Dmitry Kulikov adds a physical presence to the Panthers lineup. His 178 hits and blocks in 58 games comes to an average of 3.07 hits and blocks per game. That's second on the team's defense to only Jason Garrison's 3.26.
Mike Weaver: 3.06
Ed Jovanovski: 3.00
Brian Campbell: 2.00
Erik Gudbranson: 1.95
A significant matchup in the series is the Panthers' fifth-ranked power play which scored on 20.1 percent of its opportunities versus the Devils number-one penalty killing unit which allowed only 10.4 percent goals while they were short-handed. This New Jersey penalty kill achievement is all the more remarkable when one realizes they were 29th in the NHL in faceoff win percentage with only 47.1 percent.
Their top center, Patrick Elias, won only 44.1 percent of his faceoffs. Consequently the Devils' opponents frequently secure puck possession and can set up their offense. Florida's Stephen Weiss excels at faceoffs and should dominate the series even beyond his regular season 53.2 winning faceoff percent.
That New Jersey penalty kill success is largely attributable to star veteran goalie Martin Brodeur. For another indication of how important Brodeur is to New Jersey, consider that the Devils win 72.7 percent of their games when they score the first goal of the game; that percent is only 64.1 for Florida.
When the Devils lead after the second period, their win percentage is 85.3; for Florida that percent is only 72.7. Think of Brodeur as the closer. It is imperative that Florida not end up playing from behind.
And that's where Kulikov's offensive capability comes into play. His 0.48 points per game exceeds Garrison's 0.43 and dwarfs Jovanovksi's 0.20, Weaver's 0.19 and Gudbranson's 0.11. Only Campbell's 0.65 tops Kulikov.
So Florida's best chance to jump ahead of New Jersey and Brodeur is to get Dmitry Kulikov on the ice, preferably on a power play, early and often so that he can help produce a lead and force the Devils to play from behind. The Devils' win percentage of 42.1 when giving up the first goal of the game pales versus the previously cited 72.7 win percentage when they score the first goal.
It should be a tense, thrilling series because in the past 3-years seven of their 12 games have been decided by only one goal, four have been decided by two goals and the one three-goal game on January 6th, 2012 was skewed by two empty-net goals the Devils scored in the last minute of a 5-2 victory.
My prediction is that a rejuvenated and recovered Kulikov keys a Panther series win.