By Jay Greenberg
Experience must count for something. Not only is Marty Brodeur about to play the 10th Game 7 of his career Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET), but also feels as if he already has played two of them in this series.
"We were in two different games already where we had to get the win and performed really well," the Devils timeless goalie said Wednesday. "So we just got to leave it all out there and we'll see."
It's been hard to see the Devils losing this series, so much better have they been than Florida both times New Jersey has faced a one-game deficit. But the Panthers, who have been nothing if not opportunistic, have one more chance that reminds Brodeur too much of the last one Florida had going to Game 5.
"Every time we have had the momentum, they seem to respond to our momentum," he said.
Indeed, unlike Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, who never responds to questions about his goaltending plans and certainly wasn't going to start Wednesday with Jose Theodore's availability in doubt, Florida not only has answered a 3-0 deficit in Game 3 and a 2-0 deficit in Game 6, but bounced back from a Game 4 rout with by far its best all-around performance of the series in Game 5.
Thus, the Devils, who dominated Game 6 even if they still needed overtime to win it, are smart to be smelling a rat. The Panthers seemed so copacetic Tuesday night after having come within an overtime goal of moving on, you would swear they know something, beyond who is their goalie for Game 7, we mean.
As for whether it will be Theodore (lower body injury that made him a surprise scratch for Game 6), who participated in an optional skate Wednesday, or Scott Clemmensen, the Devils say it doesn't matter.
This really means a) they would prefer their preference not wind up on the Panthers' locker room bulletin board and b) they can only control what they can control, which most relevant to their current predicament, is staying out of the penalty box.
The Panthers power play has clicked at 30 per cent. As opposed to Game 5, when the Devils went to the box six times and lost, they visited just once in Game 6 and won.
"By now we know what's worked for us and what hasn't in this series," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer. Being in his first Game 7 as an NHL coach, he is not claiming to have them figured out, certainly not if Brodeur, who is 5-4 (1.93 goals-against average) in them, admits he doesn't have much clue about them even by now.
"I think it may help you in your preparation," he said of the value of experience. "But after that, it's just a hockey game and you play."
He remembered winning his first one, 2-1, in 1994, after losing a four-overtime Game 6 in Buffalo. He chose not to remember his last one, when the Panthers scored twice in the final two minutes to win 4-3 in 2009 in one of the most stunning endings of a playoff series ever.
"I knew that somebody would bring that one up," he said.
Since it was one of three first-rounders the Devils have lost as a higher seed since last advancing in 2007, that game is going to keep coming up until they finally drive a stake through somebody's heart, like the pesky Panthers Thursday night.
Brodeur, who turns 40 on May 6 and says he wants to give himself a birthday present by being in the nets that day, probably will return next season. But free agent Zach Parise may not, which only adds to the sense of urgency for the franchise, and The Franchise, Ilya Kovalchuk, who may never have a better chance to finally have a playoff run.
"Emotions are running high," Kovalchuk said Wednesday. "There are a lot of expectations."
The Panthers, unexpectedly in the playoffs, play not to lose and have little to lose. Might work for them, might work against them. Brodeur, who has seen everything, shrugs and says he has seen it work both ways, even if he has never before seen an 8:30 p.m. local start.
Since that is not yet past his bedtime, he would like to put the Devils recent post-season struggles to sleep, of course.
"I know we're really fortunate to be playing an 8:30 game tomorrow night," he said rolling his eyes like the dice of a Game 7, before smiling.
"Hey, we could have been on vacation."
Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
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