First-round breakdown: Devils-Canes
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs (the second round in 2006), the Hurricanes were building up momentum en route to their first and only Stanley Cup championship.
If there is a certain retro look to both teams, it's because Lou Lamoriello and Jim Rutherford, the longtime general managers in New Jersey and Carolina, have a deep and abiding respect for loyalty. It may not always work out, but they know what they like and like what they know. That's why the Devils' lineup still has Martin Brodeur and returned veterans Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik and Brendan Shanahan. All three "newcomers" either won Cups with the Devils or won them elsewhere (Shanahan has three rings from his days in Detroit).
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, brought back coach Paul Maurice after the team's seesaw start to the season cost Peter Laviolette his job. Rutherford also reacquired Matt Cullen in July 2007 and forward Erik Cole from Edmonton at this season's trade deadline (Carolina went 12-3-2 after Cole's arrival). Both Cullen and Cole were big parts of the Hurricanes' Cup run and figure to be key contributors if there's to be another this spring.
Although the Canes lost their final two games of the season, they still finished on a red-hot 13-3-2 run and won a franchise-record 12 straight home games before losing to Buffalo in Game 81. The Devils, meanwhile, slumped badly after Brodeur's record-setting turn in net, but closed out the season with five wins in their last six outings, including a 3-2 win over Carolina in both teams' season finale. So, which Devils team will show up for Game 1?
The Devils, meanwhile, produced a lot more offense than they traditionally have, and a lot of that was due to Zach Parise's emergence as an elite NHL point-producer. He finished fifth in points (94) and is third in goals (45). There is well-earned talk Parise should be on the Hart Trophy ballot for league MVP. But this will be his first playoffs as a marked man, and the Devils will have to produce a significant amount of secondary scoring to take the pressure off the Parise-Jamie Langenbrunner-Travis Zajac line. Patrik Elias, who has missed time with a leg muscle injury after establishing an all-time franchise record for points, played in the final two games for the Devils; but he will need to continue what was a solid season with linemates Dainius Zubrus and Brian Rolston, both of whom struggled this season.
2. Blue-line boost. The days of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer are distant memories for New Jersey. In their place, the Devils employ what you might call a defense by committee that helped them finish fourth overall in goals allowed per game. The Hurricanes weren't far behind, ranking eighth in goals allowed; so it stands to reason goals will be at a premium in this series. Given that, one key factor will be the offensive support from the blue line, something that heavily favors the Carolina Hurricanes.
With Anton Babchuk suddenly pouring in goals with his heavy shot (16 goals and seven in his last 11 games), the Hurricanes boast a bevy of blueliners that can find the net. In total, Carolina defensemen delivered 45 goals, more than twice what the Devils' rearguards scored (21). For the record, John Oduya was the top goal-getter among Devils defensemen (seven). That is the kind of disparity that will be a big problem for New Jersey if it's not addressed by coach Brent Sutter.
3. Rusty or ready? Brodeur missed 50 games after undergoing surgery to repair an elbow injury. It marked the first serious injury of his stellar career. He returned Feb. 26 and lit it up with nine wins in his first 10 starts. After that, Brodeur was just 4-6-1 down the stretch, although he did win four of five to finish the season. He admitted to reporters late in the going he was still a bit rusty. The theory has been Brodeur, who normally logs 70 starts or more, will be more fresh come playoff time. That's the theory, at least. The reality is Brodeur has not been particularly sharp in the playoffs since the Devils' last Cup win in 2003. He has gone 12-18 as the Devils have advanced past the first round just once. This series will answer a lot of questions regarding Brodeur, one way or another.
4. Weary or zoned? The Hurricanes are happy to see the return of Cam Ward in net. Not that he went anywhere, physically, but the Cam Ward that played in 28 straight games before taking a break in Game 82, more closely resembles the one that earned playoff MVP honors in 2006 than at any point since. There are some who believe his franchise-best 39 wins and 19-7-2 record down the stretch should earn him Vezina Trophy consideration. The 25-year-old Ward is both young enough to take that kind of workload, but has the experience to stay calm when the playoff waters get rough. He also seems to have put the maddening inconsistencies that marked his play for much of the last two regular seasons, which ended without a playoff berth.
5. So, the gang's all here & now what? In San Jose, GM Doug Wilson has tried to collect as many players with Stanley Cup rings as he can since last season's playoff disappointment. In New Jersey, Lamoriello has done much the same. But is that enough to be a catalyst to playoff success? Shanahan had just 14 points in 34 games despite spending time on the power play after he signed with the Devils at midseason. Holik, the great shut-down center, had just nine points in 62 games, and Rolston, signed away from Minnesota in the offseason, had an off season with just 15 goals and 32 points in 64 games (he had 34 goals last season).
Rolston plays on the Devils' second line with Zubrus and Elias, a unit that will have to produce if the Devils are to advance. In the end, those players' mere presence in the dressing room may mean the difference between winning and losing a close game or series. The regular season, at least, didn't suggest such a thing might happen.
• Carolina: Staal has 36 points in the last month, and the Hurricanes are 22-3-2 when he scores. Cullen had 43 points in 69 games and was playing what Rutherford told us was the best hockey of his career when the forward suffered a lower-body injury. Cullen hasn't played since March 21. He may be back for Game 1 and, if he is, will be a boost to Carolina's power play.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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