Sunday, April 22, 2007

Senators-Devils Tilt Confirmed

With the New Jersey Devils' game 6 elimination of the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday afternoon, the stage is set for a Senators-Devils matchup in round two of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs. Having met twice previously in the post-season, the Eastern conference powerhouses split the series victories 1-1. In 1998, the upstart Senators defeated the 1st-place NJ Devils in 6 games to advance to the second round; it was the Senators first series victory in modern Senators history. In 2002-03, the two teams rematched in the Eastern Conference Final, a nail-biting series which saw the President's Trophy winning Senators claw back from a 3-1 series deficit to force game 7, thanks to an overtime goal from stalwart defenseman Chris Phillips. Despite holding a lead on home ice in the final game of the series, the Senators allowed the Devils to tie the game and, eventually advance to the Stanley Cup final on the heels of a Jeff Freisen goal in the waning minutes of the game. The Devils went on to face the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the finals, winning their 3rd Stanley Cup with another 7-game victory. Though more recent Ottawa-NJ regular season games have gained reputation as cautious, defensive chess-matches, their playoff encounters have proven to be anything but boring or unexciting.

In the 06-07 regular season, the Devils outmatched the Senators, as Ottawa fell 1-2-1 in the season series. While the Senators feeble record in one-goal games was highlighted against the Devils (all 3 losses were by a single goal), there were encouraging signs in this year's games. First was a late October game, in which the struggling Senators seemed to be revived against a (usually) unflappable Brodeur; Ottawa thoroughly embarrassed NJ in a 8-1 thrashing, the Devils worst loss in over 15 NHL seasons. The following three games proved to be much less one-sided, however. A late November game saw the Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner line single-handedly force an early 3-0 deficit, even as the Senators were playing well. Though Ottawa clawed back to within one, as expected the Devils' unflinching defensive play secured a 3-2 victory. In an early January afternoon game, during a strong stretch of Senators play in the absence of Jason Spezza, Emery's valiant efforts were not enough to withstand yet another 3-2 loss. The two teams did not meet again until the last week of the season, when the Devils were battling for the Division crown, and the Senators were looking to secure home ice advantage with the 4th seed. The game was particularly of note as it came just one day after the firing of Devils' coach Claude Julien. The game was perhaps not the most energetic, and it wasn't until a minute-long stretch in the middle of the third period that any goals were scored (only two, one by each team). The game went to overtime and then a shootout, and though the Senators stretched it to a 6th shooter, John Madden foiled Emery to give the Devils the game, ultimately securing the Atlantic title and forcing a Senators-Penguins first round matchup.

The series is expected to start Wednesday or Thursday. Scheduling is not yet confirmed, and with the New Jersey Nets' NBA playoffs series against the Toronto Raptors taking place coincidently, there is a possibility of back-to-back games or two-day layovers. However, it is to be expected that a Saturday night game will take place, likely at the Continental Airlines Arena.

In the days leading up to the series, I will attempt to offer a playoff "preview" of sorts, with keys to victory for both teams, and possible predictions for what will surely be a tightly contested series.

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