That put a lot of pressure on the New Jersey Devils this season. After missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 1996, the Devils had to put together some kind of bounceback season to keep their newly-appointed captain.
Well, they put that season together. It was far from perfect, but the 2011-12 Devils season has to be considered a success. Though they may have finished fourth in the division, they also tied for fourth in the conference in points—tied for seventh in the NHL.
Still, the Devils needed to prove they could actually contend in the postseason and not just fizzle out once getting there, as they've done so many times in recent memory.
Well, they haven't done that yet. Thursday night, they will play in Florida against the Panthers for the franchise's first Game 7 since the infamous collapse of 2009.
The Devils completed the first step when they beat the Panthers in Game 6—a game that could have marked the end of the Devils' season—but it will all be for naught if they are unable to complete the series comeback and advance to the second round.
Parise wants to play for a contender. Strong arguments can be made for the Devils' offense, and their defense is underrated, though still not great. But with huge question marks surrounding the Devils' goaltending next season, how the Devils fare this postseason has got to become a crucial element in his decision.
Beating the Panthers doesn't make the Devils a contender; far from it. In fact, they'd be winning a series that many picked them to win in the first place. But the slate is wiped clean at the start of the conference semifinals, and an impressive performance there can change any team's fate.
On the other hand, if the Devils lose, it should send a pretty strong statement that the Devils are not anywhere near a Cup. The Panthers are not one of the best teams in the East, let alone the league. Losing to them exposes a lot of the weaknesses on the Devils.
Many of those weaknesses are already exposed, but again, a strong showing in the second round makes everyone forget what came first.
It's still very unclear where Zach Parise will land. You can see any number of articles just on this site speculating about just that topic. But if the Devils bail out in the first round again, it would be hard to blame Parise if he crossed the team off of his list.
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