Now in their third season removed from that championship run, the Hurricanes will look to blow the Devils away in what will feature the best goaltending matchup of the first round, East or West.
Martin Brodeur, one of the greatest goaltenders in history, will square off against Cam Ward, perhaps the best young goaltender in the NHL today, for the right to go to the second round.
Brodeur missed 50 games this season after undergoing elbow surgery, and didn’t seem to miss a beat upon his return; the injury marked the first major setback in Brodeur’s illustrious career.
Despite stumbling to the finish, Brodeur will lead a very defensive minded Devils team that not only has found a prime-time scorer in Zach Parise, but uses a stout defense by committee rotation that makes the days of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens seem like eons ago.
The Hurricanes have the best chance of any lower seed in the first round to pull an upset.
Playing the best hockey of anyone outside of Pittsburgh, Cam Ward closed the season strong to warrant justified Vezina talk, and helped the Hurricanes surge into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Despite going through the trials and tribulations of a young goaltender, Ward earned MVP honors in the 2006 playoffs and has shown the kind of mental toughness that makes Brodeur so good.
This series will be all about the goaltending, and should prove to be one of the lowest scoring affairs of the first round.
(3) New Jersey Devils, 51-27-4 (106 points)
New Jersey was one of five teams to break the 50-win plateau in the regular season.
Martin Brodeur returned from his surgery to set the NHL all-time mark for wins by a goaltender, but it was his backup that proved to be the most valuable player to the team.
While he might not see much ice-time in the playoffs, Scott Clemensen was the most important piece in the New Jersey puzzle all season.
Following in the footsteps of Pittsburgh’s Ty Conklin last year, who won his first nine starts with Penguins and finished with a 17-6-5 record in Marc-Andre Fleury’s absence (Conklin also set the Penguins single season save percentage record at .923), Clemensen went 25-13 with a 2.39 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
While I would be remised for not mentioning Clemensen, it was Brodeur who stepped in and didn’t miss a beat.
The NHL’s all-time win’s leader for goaltenders won nine of his first 10 starts and four of five to close out the season; Brodeur finished the season 19-9 with a 2.42 goals against average and .916 save percentage.
Admitting to being a bit rusty, a lot will hinge on whether not Brodeur, who typically averages 70 games or more a season, can return to form for the Devils in time to make a successful playoff run.
I wouldn’t bet against him. After all…he is Martin Brodeur.
Another big factor to the success of the Devils will be the performance of Zach Parise.
Parise finished with 94 points on the season, good for fifth in the league, and tallied 45 goals, which was good for third.
Parise will be entering his first playoffs as a marked man, after emerging as an elite point-producer this season, and the Devils will need to get points from other players if they hope to take the pressure off of Parise.
New Jersey has produced more offense this year than normal, and has five players who recorded 60 or more points; Parise (94 points), Patrick Elias (78 points), Jamie Langenbrunner (69 points), Travis Zajac (62 points) and Brian Gionta (60 points).
New Jersey was fourth in the NHL in goals allowed this season (209) and they have eight players who are at +18 or better.
The Devils defense could be the deciding factor in this series, as Carolina has outscored opponents 88-45 (going 17-3-2 in that time frame) from February 19 up until their last two games of the season.
Bobby Holik will need to continue to be the man for New Jersey on the defensive end and shut down the Hurricanes stud forward Erik Staal.
If Holik can shut Staal down, similar to what he did to Mats Sundin in years past, then Carolina may be reduced to a mere wind gust as opposed to a category five storm.
(6) Carolina Hurricanes, 45-30-7 (97 points)
Carolina finished the season at a torrid pace.
Carolina went 17-5-2 to finish the season, and catapulted themselves into sixth place in the conference.
Carolina outscored opponents 91-53 in their final 24 games, and their power play which was struggling at 12.9 percent, improved to 20.5 percent after Paul Maurice and longtime Hurricane great Ron Francis took over the coaching duties December fourth.
The Hurricanes scored four or more goals in 12 of their final 24 games, and will be lead by their star forward Eric Staal who registered 40 goals on his way to a 75 points season.
Carolina will use a balanced attack that features nine players who scored 14 or more goals on the season.
Ryan Whitney, who led the team in points with 77, will share the load with Eric Staal, but it’s on the blue line that the Hurricanes will look to exploit their decisive advantage.
The Carolina defense has been responsible for 45 goals on the season; this is more than double New Jersey’s output of 21 goals from their blue-liners.
Anton Babchuck leads the blue-line charge for the Hurricanes with 16 goals and seven goals in his last 11 games; by comparison, the Devils leading goal-scoring defenseman, John Oduya, has seven goals on the whole season.
Carolina, while slightly more potent than the Rangers, has scored the fourth fewest goals of the 16 playoff teams; granted New Jersey is fifth among those same 16, they have a considerably more potent balanced attack and faced much stiffer competition from their division.
Carolina will rely on Cam Ward to carry them, much like he did in 2006.
The young netminder finished the season with a 2.44 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Ward set a franchise record with 39 wins and started 28 straight games for the Hurricanes down the stretch, going 19-7-2 in that span before taking a break in the season finale against New Jersey.
Cam Ward, the MVP of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup Championship team, will be the catalyst for success if the Hurricanes are to make a deep run in these playoffs.
Ward has the experience and talent to be a workhorse for many years. He is mature well beyond his years, and may be in better form this season than Brodeur.
A hidden stat to keep your eyes on is Carolina’s record when Eric Staal scores a goal; the Hurricanes are 22-3-2 when Staal scores a goal.
There is very little difference in these two teams when it comes to special teams.
New Jersey converts 18.9 percent of their power plays, and kills off 79.9 percent of penalties. Carolina, on the other hand, converts 18.7 percent of their power plays, and successfully kills off 80.4 percent of penalties.
Carolina, however, is playing great offensive hockey to close out the season as previously mentioned.
Goals will be hard to come by, and the key matchup will be between Martin Brodeur and Cam Ward.
Whichever goaltender steps up to the challenge will lead his team into the second round.
This is a battle of hockey’s past and hockey’s future.
Martin Brodeur, Brendan Shanahan, Bobby Holik, Patrick Elias, and Jamie Langenbrunner have all had great careers.
They have left their mark on the game of hockey, and we will learn a lot about all of them, and just what they have left in the tank, in this series.
Carolina, on the other hand, has a young core of players headed by Cam Ward, Tuommo Ruttu, Anton Babchuk, and Eric Staal.
If New Jersey wins this series, then they have a chance to solidify their status as one of the most consistent and dominant, teams of the past decade.
Carolina, by comparison, has a chance to move on and establish a dynasty. Their Cup win in 2006 could prove to be just the beginning of a string of championships that could solidify Carolina as the best team since the lock-out.
With a young franchise goaltender, defenseman and forward, Carolina has all the pieces to be successful for many years.
While it is hard to deny the accomplishments, and talent, of the New Jersey Devils, they are slumping while Carolina is peaking.
Look for the Hurricanes to upset the Devils in the first round and win in five games.