By Jay Greenberg in Sunrise, Fla.
It was well past midnight and Marty Brodeur's bedtime.
"We started at 8:30, usually I'm in bed by 11," he said. "Maybe that's why I gave up the two goals in the third period."
Threatening to get much older than their about-to-turn 40 goaltender, however, was yet another New Jersey first-round defeat. After dominating Game 7 for two periods, the Devils still were one more false move from a fourth straight early exit in five years.
As much as they seemed trying to lose -- giving three third-period power-play opportunities to a Florida team that had scored seven of its 15 goals in the playoffs with the man advantage -- Brodeur wouldn't let the Devils do it, making a save on a Kris Versteeg backhander in the final 17 seconds of regulation, then standing up in overtime to Stephen Weiss from up the slot before taking Weiss's rebound on the arm.
John Madden next had the series on his stick, virtually in the crease, but Brodeur stopped that one, too. And in the end, series-long form held.
Rookie Adam Henrique's second goal of the game, which followed a David Clarkson force along the wall on Dmitri Kulikov, a turnover by Shawn Mathias and a slick blind backhanded pass by Alexei Ponikarovsky. Henrique's winner, through the five-hole of Jose Theodore at 3:47 of the second OT, came at even strength.
Actually, it came at whatever strength the statistically oldest team in the league had left after dominating at five-on-five throughout the series and still almost giving it away. But almost only counts in horseshoes and the Panthers' luck ran out. Just when they could smell the most opportunistic of wins, they ran into Brodeur.
First, Florida did literally when Mathias, bumped by Henrique, ran over Brodeur before Versteeg scored a goal that was disallowed early in the third period.
But Brodeur stopped Weiss and Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky off the wing when it was 2-1 and the goalie's teammates were reeling.
"We were on our heels and he was our best player tonight," New Jersey head coach Peter DeBoer said. "He has to be or we don't win.
When the game went into Friday, Brodeur was celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first NHL playoff appearance. Instead of candles, he blew out the Panthers' surprising season.
"We had a hard time with the power play all series and this wasn't different," Brodeur said. "Actually, after that third period, we were pretty happy to start overtime.
"We had to win Game 6 in overtime, too. Mentally and physically, we're tired, no doubt about it.
"They didn't outplay us all series. We deserved better than what we got tonight.
The Devils thought they were playing the perfect road game and, for two periods, they were. So content were they with their checking rhythm, they forgot to continue to attack.
Even failing to get the third goal, though, they still could have won the game by staying out of the penalty box. But Clarkson's stick inadvertently came up in the face of Mike Weaver, Peter Harrold grabbed Versteeg at the side of the net and Marek Zidlicky lifted the puck over the glass.
Weiss one-timed a Brian Campbell setup past Brodeur during the Harrold penalty and, with Zidlicky in the box, Marcel Goc put in a twice-deflected shot by Sean Bergenheim, who had spun away from Zach Parise along the wall.
"You have to give those guys credit, they stayed with it," Devils forward Patrik Elias said. "But we made it a lot harder on ourselves."
At least Henrique made it look easy on his first goal, a deft tip from the high slot of Anton Volchenkov's slapshot only 1:29 into the game. Stephen Gionta,scoring the fifth goal of the series for Devils' fourth line, reached around Campbell to make it 2-0 in the second period and there was every reason to believe the series was over.
"We saw some true Panther hockey," Florida head coach Kevin Dineen said of the comeback. "But it didn't start well or end well."
That was because of Brodeur.
"We really played well in the first two periods and then we had a lot of adversity and we pulled it off," he said. "So we can feel pretty good about that."
Especially so after the 2009 debacle, when the Carolina Hurricanes scored twice in the last two minutes to win 3-2 in Game 7, and a dismal 2010 flop against the Philadelphia Flyers, when Brodeur was not especially good over five games and his teammates were even worse. The Devils next get a chance at vengeance starting Sunday in Philadelphia, when they jump from the frying pan into the fire against an even hotter power play than Florida's.
Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
Do you have improvements to suggest for this page?