It was 15 years, but worth the wait for the Florida Panthers, as another playoff drought was ended Sunday night.
The Panthers had lost nine straight playoff games, dating to the opening game of the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Rangers, the longest active drought in the NHL. That included Friday’s Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils, who scored the first three goals and held on for the win.
On Sunday, however, Florida came out with the first three goals and emerged victorious over the Devils, 4-2.
Penalties, although few, proved to be a huge difference maker. Just 11 seconds into the game, Andy Greene tripped Marcel Goc into Devils netminder Martin Brodeur. That penalty led to the Panthers’ initial goal, coming off the stick of team leader Stephen Weiss.
Weiss caught the rebound of Mikael Samuelsson’s shot from the left point, slipping it past Brodeur for the fastest playoff goal in Panthers history and the quickest postseason power-play goal since 1987.
The period was bookended with another penalty. This time two Devils were headed to the box, as Alexi Ponikarovski high-sticked Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson was then hit by David Clarkson, who was called for charging. Both penalties occurred at the 19:43 mark.
Early in the second period and still on the power play, Weiss doubled up the score, again on a rebound. Jason Garrison shot the puck from the top right circle, with Brodeur’s save again going to Weiss, who had an easy top-shelf goal. Marcel Goc was credited with an assist on the play, as he redirected the initial shot.
Goc later scored a goal of his own, which turned out to be the game-winner. At 14:39 into the second, he took a wrist shot from the bottom of the right circle. Brodeur made the save, but a funny bounce off his shoulder redirected it into the net.
Despite outplaying the Devils, Florida was less crisp in passing, and played what could be considered a sloppy game. New Jersey appeared content to take the tied series to Newark.
”Special teams were the difference in the first two periods,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. ”They got two power play goals, put us in a hole. I thought they were the hungrier team the first two periods. You can’t play 20 minutes in the playoffs and expect to win.”
The third period nearly changed everything, however. It looked like a different team took the Devils’ place, as they played their best period of the six so far.
Travis Zajac scored just 48 seconds into the third period, as he beat Jose Theodore with a close-range shot. Theodore went to his right, but Zajac shot the puck through the five-hole, putting the Devils on the board.
Just 1:14 later, the dangerous Ilya Kovalchuk took advantage of a turnover, as he tipped in a centering pass from Adam Henrique. With New Jersey threatening, and Florida having used its timeout in the second period on an icing, it appeared that the Panthers might have to wait at least one more game before getting back into the playoff win column.
To their credit, the Panthers played consistent, and their consistency is what gave them the game. Theodore turned up the heat and played like the goaltender of his prime. He was the difference maker, making 10 of his 23 saves in the third period. The veteran netminder earned his first postseason win since 2008, when he beat the Minnesota Wild in Game 7 with the Colorado Avalanche in the first round.
Goc and Weiss also played well, but as has been the case all year, this game was another team effort, with all four lines playing consistently. They thwarted attempts by the Devils in the first and third periods, keeping one of the hottest teams in hockey at bay for the majority of the game.
Florida scored an empty-net goal in the final second, with Tomas Fleischmann beating his defender for the icing on the cake.
”Feels good,” Weiss said. ”Obviously, these fans have been waiting a long time for this kind of hockey and this is a big win for us. Not the start we wanted in the third period, but this is a big win.”
The teams meet again on Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.