Devils-Panthers Preview

It’s the biggest game of the Florida Panthers’ season.

Again.

Seems like every game the Panthers have played in the last few

weeks – starting with the race to return to the playoffs for the

first time in 12 years, then to wrap up the Southeast Division, and

after coming back from a Game 1 loss of their Eastern Conference

first-round series with New Jersey – has been classified in the

same manner.

That might explain why the Panthers have a business-as-usual

mindset heading into Game 5 against the Devils on Saturday night,

when one team will take a giant stride toward the second round. A

best-of-seven series is now a best-of-three, resuming on Florida’s

home ice.

”We didn’t clinch a playoff spot until a couple games left in

the season, and then we got our division title in the last game of

the season. And people keep saying `That’s your first playoff win

in so on and so forth,”’ Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said Friday

afternoon. ”Lots of little milestones along the way, but

obviously, you get it down to three games and this will be a big

game. And we’re excited.”

So are the Devils.

And if anyone needs clarity on the magnitude of Game 5,

especially when a series is knotted at two games apiece, ask the

Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk.

”It’s a huge game,” Kovalchuk said. ”I think it will be a

deciding game, so we have to be ready.”

The Panthers aren’t quite ready to declare Saturday

all-or-nothing. Big game, yes. More than that, not so much.

”You know what, I’ve been in a situation, I was down 3-1 and we

came back and won in Game 7,” Panthers goalie Jose Theodore said.

”I mean, it’s a huge game. For sure, it is. But I think until you

win four, it’s hard to say which one’s the biggest.”

For now, for the Devils anyway, the biggest one was the last

one.

A 4-0 victory behind 26 saves from Martin Brodeur on Thursday

night tied the series and represented one of the most one-sided

victories New Jersey has enjoyed all season. The Devils won by four

or more goals only four times in the regular season, and it matched

the team’s largest margin of victory in a playoff game since

topping Carolina 5-1 on May 13, 2006.

Of course, one big victory guarantees nothing. That four-goal

win against the Hurricanes six years ago was New Jersey’s only

triumph in that series.

”It’s two hard-working teams down to a best-of-three,” Devils

coach Pete DeBoer said. ”I like our situation. We’re one of the

best road teams in the league. But I’m sure they’d say the same

thing over there, that they’re one of the best home teams in the

league. But we’re excited about the opportunity.”

The Devils won 24 times on the road in the regular season, one

shy of Boston and Philadelphia for the league lead. Florida lost

only nine games in regulation at home, fourth-fewest in the league

– though that also doesn’t take into account the Panthers’ two

overtime defeats and staggering total of nine shootout losses on

home ice.

Dineen is facing the now-familiar dilemma of choosing a

goaltender. Scott Clemmensen saved the day after replacing Theodore

in Game 3, then gave up four goals on 27 shots in Game 4 –

although, in fairness, with the way Brodeur was playing, there

wouldn’t figure to be much blame placed upon Clemmensen.

”I’ll repeat over and over, that no matter what decision I

make, I think it’ll be a good one,” said Dineen, whose team also

split four games with New Jersey in the regular season.

Florida will not have defenseman Keaton Ellerby for Game 5 after

he got hurt midway through Thursday’s game, the team describing it

as a lower-body injury. Ellerby was in the lineup for Jason

Garrison, someone who the Panthers are ”cautiously optimistic”

about having available on Saturday night, Dineen said.

Compared to other series around the league throughout the

opening playoff round, the Panthers and Devils have been downright

gentlemanly. There hasn’t been a single major penalty issued in the

series, and the teams have combined for 40 minors. By comparison,

Philadelphia alone had 42 minors through the first four games of

its slugfest with Pittsburgh.

But things are taking a more chippy turn, too. The Devils’ David

Clarkson picked up a 10-minute misconduct in the final seconds of

Game 4, part of a flurry of 11 penalties in the third period.

”I just think it’s getting later on the series, and it’s

getting a little bit tighter so emotions are getting higher,”

Panthers center Stephen Weiss said. ”Saying that, we still need to

stay disciplined, stay out of the penalty box and they need to do

the same as well. So the chippy stuff is out the window. We’ve just

got to focus on playing hockey.”