The sun rose on Thursday in Sunrise, Florida not just to illuminate the natural beauty of the subtropical State, but also the beauty of a hockey game that we are going to witness tonight when the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers go horns-to-head in an Eastern Conference playoff race thriller.
Both teams are playing great, exciting hockey as of late. The Panthers (29-25-6) are on the prowl, and are hunting a playoff spot. Florida is 7-3-0 in their last 10 games and they’re currently riding a three-game winning streak after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in a high-intensity overtime victory, thanks to a partial breakaway snipe from Jared McCann. The Devils (33-22-8) are coming off two emotional victories after a come-from-behind triumph over the New York Islanders on Saturday night (Patrik Elias jersey retirement ceremony), and 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday. Both teams are soaring under the radar right now. Devils fans, I implore you, do not underestimate the Cats, as declawing them will not be an easy task.
The stakes are high for both clubs tonight. The Devils, who currently occupy the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, are just one win out of third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Panthers sit just five points out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with three games in hand, and are charging after the Blue Jackets for that last spot. I hope you’ve got some fingernails left, because tonight will probably be another nail-biter!
New Jersey will be getting some reinforcements tonight in the form of grinder Pat Maroon, who is expected to make his Devils debut after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline. Additionally, goaltender Cory Schneider is expected to return tonight after missing the last 16 games due to a groin injury. As of writing this, it is unclear whether Schneider will start or Keith Kinkaid gets the nod again.
Players to Watch
Michael Grabner… Grabner had a number of good looks on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, including a breakaway. Nobody can match his speed or his agility, and he came very close to getting his first as a Devil the other night on more than one occasion. Maybe tonight is when he finally breaks through.
Aleksander Barkov… Keep an eye out for No. 16 in red whenever he is on the ice. He’s the Panthers’ top scorer, is producing at a point-per-game pace (21 goals, 38 assists in 59 games) and probably has the silkiest hands on the Panthers. The Dadonov-Barkov-Bjugstad line has been silently wreaking havoc on defenders recently, so John Hynes will want to match that unit with the Travis Zajac line, purely for their defensive awareness abilities. Expect the Greene-Vatanen pairing to be out defending the Barkov line often as well.
It’ll be a battle of resilience and dogged determination. The Devils’ team speed will give the Devils the edge as long as the goaltending holds up. I predict a final score of 4-3 with the New Jersey Devils moving on to Carolina with two points.
Where to Watch
The game starts at 7:30pm and can be seen on MSG+ and FOX Sports Florida (FS-F). Also, stay tuned to our social media pages as I will be in attendance at the game and will go live on Facebook if I can.