Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils open their series in Sunrise tonight
April 13th carries a lot of history for Kevin Dineen, coach of the Florida Panthers. It was on this day in 1997 that he scored the last goal in Hartford Whalers history. A good goal it was, too - the game-winner in a 2-1 game vs the Tampa Bay Lightning. Dineen, who was captain of the team, also became the first captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, and he scored the first goal for the 'Canes. So April 13th is a bittersweet day in Hartford hockey history.
Tonight, Kevin Dineen will be in the playoffs. But this time, he's going to be there in his first year as a head coach in the NHL, as the head coach of the Florida Panthers, who will be in their first playoff game since 2000. If Dineen does not at least finish in the top 3 of the Jack Adams, it will be shocking. He took a team where more than half the players were newly acquired by the club, and took them from worst in the East (and 28th overall in 2011) to winning their division for the first time ever. That distinction put him in rare and elite company; only two other coaches have done so (Mike Keenan, 1993-94 with the Rangers; Ken Hitchcock with Dallas in 1996-97).
The Florida roster has all turned over since the last time the team saw the playoffs. But there's one familiar face in the lineup who remembers a time in Panther history when the Panthers not only went to the playoffs, but went all the way to the Final: Ed Jovanovski, who returned to Florida this year after spending most of his career with the Canucks and Coyotes. Jovanovski was a rookie in 1995-96 and he has been to the playoffs 8 times between his three teams.
Most notable of stories among the Panthers, however, is alternate captain Stephen Weiss, who is playing in his first playoff game after 637 regular-season games, the second-longest NHL career drought without a playoff appearance. (Jay Bouwmeester of the Flames has the longest, 717 games). Weiss remained loyal to the team that drafted him, and finally got rewarded this year. He had to watch longtime teammates Gregory Campbell and Nathan Horton lift the Cup last year in Boston, which helped motivate him over the summer.
The Panthers have plenty of playoff experience, and more than a few Stanley Cup winners on their roster. John Madden spent most of his career with the Devils, where he won 2 Cups; he also won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. Teammates Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg, and Brian Campbell were part of the 2010 Championship team as well; Kopecky had previously won a Cup with Detroit. Various players on the Panthers have spent more than a few second seasons pursuing the Cup - and winning them - with teams as diverse as the Stars, Canucks, Capitals, Sharks, Avalanche, Bruins, Predators, Flyers, Coyotes, and Rangers.
But the Devils have their share of stories they bring to the table as well. New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer was fired by the Panthers two seasons ago. Ilya Kovalchuk - he of the staggering 15-year, $100 million contract that was the talk of the NHL in the summer of 2010 - is in pursuit of his first Cup. Martin Brodeur - who holds just about every record possible for goalies in the NHL (games played, wins, shutouts earned) - hopes to earn one more Cup before retiring. Brodeur's next win will be his 100th playoff win; and he has had a 2.01 GAA and .919 save% for the playoffs across all those appearances.
These teams matched up well in the regular season, splitting their series 2-2. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 2000, when the Devils swept the Panthers in the first round. Florida will not want to repeat that in 2012. While the Panthers are not considered to have any "elite" forwards, they can score from all four lines, and have a lot of fire power on the blue line as well - Brian Campbell was 3rd among defensemen for points (53) and 2nd for assists (49); Jason Garrison was 2nd for goals with 16. The question is if they can survive the Devils' crushing forecheck; and for New Jersey, the question is if Martin Brodeur can have one more stellar post-season.