By Jay Greenberg in Sunrise, Fla.
New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer put Adam Henrique back on the big line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to start the third period. And the Devils, on a Florida vacation for 40 minutes, woke up.
Dainius Zubrus, bumped to the third line, took a chip pass by Andy Greene and broke the shutout with a shot off Panthers goalie Jose Theodore's pads on the second shift.
On the third, Kovalchuk redirected a feed from Henrique off the sideboard to cut the Panthers' lead to3-2.
Fifteen years since the Panthers last playoff win, the third period suddenly promised to be another 15 years long for the diehards of the long- abused franchise.
With 17:58 to hang on, Florida used 17:57 of it until forward Kris Versteeg blocked Kovalchuk's attempt off a final faceoff and Panthers forward Tomas Fleischmann hit the empty net to a cathartic roar.
The Devils had been all over Florida from Tallahassee to Key West, had Theodore at their seeming mercy as the Panthers, whacking, hacking and not even trying to counter, panicked around their goaltender. But they hung on by their long nails and thanks to the two power-play rebounds that Stephen Weiss had buried, won the game 4-2.
The Panthers have looked overmatched when the Devils really put their minds to it, but in the middle four periods of the six played in Sunrise that seemed to be a problem for New Jersey.
"The difference in the game was special teams," said DeBoer, yet that wasn't entirely true.
Indeed, Greene took a penalty after 23 seconds for the first power play that Weiss cashed and David Clarkson was sent to the box after his semi-leap into Erik Gudbranson was ruled a charge, putting New Jersey down two men and ultimately behind 2-0.
But Devils goalie Marty Brodeur also didn't cleanly catch a wide-angle drive by Marcel Goc for the third, and ultimately winning goal, and the Devils simply didn't attack for two periods. They had nine shots going to the third.Flailing around
So all the desperate flailing around Theodore they ultimately did failed to get them anything except the understanding that they missed a chance to make short work of the series, always a good idea when every extra game increases the chances of somebody important getting hurt.
Parise, in fact, was waiting out the first wave of interviewers Sunday night in the training room, increasing the suspicions being aroused by two pointless games in which he has had repeated opportunities to finish. But obviously the Panthers, run out of their rink in the first period of Game One, still don't think it was pointless for them to make the playoffs, especially Weiss.
He played 637 regular-season games until finally getting here. A pretty good player in a pretty bad spot as a cheap ownership disassembled spoils -- Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester and Roberto Luongo -- won from high draft position, Weiss was finally in the right place at the right time to win a playoff game for the Panthers at long last.
"Everybody is excited about Weiss," said Florida coach Kevin Dineen. "He is the identity of our team, the player who has been here the longest, the face of the franchise from the player's perspective."
Five coaches, five general managers, and three arena name changes later, the fans didn't seem to have any problem remembering their last playoff win, showering the ice with toy rats, that could have been replicas of the previous Florida ownership.
"Feels good," said Weiss. "Obviously, these fans have been waiting a long time."Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
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