First-Round Preview: Devils-Panthers

The Panthers and Devils kick off first-round action with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Friday in Sunrise, Florida.

How will the 3-6 matchup shake out?

Here's a glimpse of ESPN.com's Scott Burnisde's take on the series:

Know this: Virtually no one picked the Florida Panthers to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000, let alone win their first Southeast Division title. But that didn't stop GM Dale Tallon's scrappy bunch from doing just that. And know this: Almost no one will pick the Panthers to make a dent in a very good New Jersey team that ended up the sixth seed but actually collected eight more points than the Panthers (thanks, NHL, for that misbegotten playoff setup).

But having spent time in Florida during training camp and then late in the season, and having been among the few who thought this team had a shot at a postseason berth, we're not convinced this series is as lopsided as many assume. The Panthers nearly gave away this shot at the postseason by managing to win just twice in their last 10 games, although, if you're a Cats fan, you point out they did manage to collect points in seven of those 10 games and they are truly a team with nothing to lose at this stage.

"We're going in loose," Tallon told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop, but we're going to have some fun with this."

The Devils, meanwhile, rocked into the postseason on a six-game winning streak. And rookie head coach Pete DeBoer, often overlooked when it comes to Jack Adams discussion for coach of the year, has seen his team steadily improve throughout the season, piling up an impressive 21-9-3 record since the start of February. They have a potent offense, led by Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, and a solid defense-by-committee playing in front of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.

"It's fair to give the Devils a dark-horse label. They're capable of good things in the playoffs," one Eastern Conference executive told ESPN.com.

This series will mark the first playoff appearance for DeBoer, who spent three years behind the Panthers' bench before landing in New Jersey last offseason. His counterpart, Kevin Dineen, is in his first NHL season but has done a bang-up job defining the Panthers' identity after a summer that saw a massive turnover in personnel.

Read the rest of his preview, including the 5 Points to Series, Key Matchup and more here.