By Jay Greenberg
As with food, one shouldn't leave pucks lying around. It draws rats.
The Devils may not have done enough to lead the Panthers in Game 5, but with seven minutes to go they assuredly were still in it, down only 1-0 when Scottie Upshall rimmed the puck from outside the blueline. Kris Versteeg went after it like he hadn't been in the second round in two years.
Defenceman Bryce Salvador took a bad route to the puck while a law-abiding Marty Brodeur waited patiently for it to enter the trapezoid. It never got there.
"He came out of nowhere," said Brodeur, sort of like the Florida franchise after 11 dark springs. Versteeg backhanded the puck to Upshall, who had gone to a net wide open to the possibility that the Panthers should be more than just happy to be in the playoffs again, might actually advance.
"I've seen [Versteeg] jump in ahead of their 'D','' Upshall said. "This guy takes pucks away from everybody. Marty is an excellent puck-handler, to strip a puck like that and throw a little backhander out, that's a nice little feeling."
Rats, made from the apparent same rubber as these Panthers, rained down at the end of a 3-0 win that put Florida one game -- Tuesday night in Newark -- away from advancing while also advancing the idea that the team with the lesser talent in a series can win it on opportunism.
Versteeg, a solid contributor on the Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup winner, but a flop last spring as the Flyers' main move at the trading deadline, played like the star the Panthers theoretically don't have, not only putting the game away with his stealth, but one-timing a howitzer from well below the faceoff dot off a second-period power-play feed from Stephen Weiss.
Thus did the Panthers, after brief Game 4 interruption, resume making New Jersey pay for taking penalties with a seventh power-play goal of the series. That said, at even strength this was the best game the Southeast Division champs, who went plain South in the final three weeks of the regular season, have played in the series they now lead 3-2.
The Devils deservedly beat themselves up for how ordinary they were, but that was alot of the Panthers' doing. Goalie Jose Theodore was solid, didn't have to be spectacular as the Panthers kept the Devils to the outside, cleared the few rebounds, and mostly on the work of Mikael Samuelsson, Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim, made Ilya Kovalchuk, the most dynamic talent in the series, look ordinary again.
Kovalchuk's night ended much as it had progressed. He gave the puck away to Tomas Kopecky and had to hook him as he went to the empty net. The goal was automatically rewarded, as were the Panthers for doing their most determined all-around work of the series at obviously its most critical time.
This is not over yet. But if in imposing their will in Game 4, the Devils thought they had left an indelible impression on Florida, they kidded themselves into a 3-2 hole.
They were a little unlucky when Anton Volchenkov, about to be on the ice for his 10th goal against of the series, had his stick shatter. Zach Parise gave his to the defenceman, but had no tool to keep Weiss from created a lane with his feed to Versteeg.
Some of the six power plays the Devils gave Florida came on arguable calls, so discipline didn't blatantly break down as it had in Game 3. But after being successfully challenged by captain Parise to be better than ordinary in Game 4, they were back to being generic, and an even match for the Panthers.
"Our penalty kill was decent," said coach Peter DeBoer, "It wasn't the reason we lost the game.
"But we took too many penalties and when you do that you get yourself in trouble overplaying your big guys, what happened tonight. We didn't do enough offensively."
Kovalchuk, with six shots, was hardly inactive over 25 minutes, but the Panthers are exhausting him and the Devils not dumping the puck enough. When they did Saturday night, a mobile Florida defence wheeled it out, so ultimately there were scant rebounds and deflections.
"We didn't compete hard enough," said Parise. "We lost a lot one-on-one pucks that we were winning the last game."
So they left this one lying around for Versteeg, who made them pay.
"We're down to our last loss before going home," said Brodeur. "We have to have an attitude of survival, that these guys are trying to take something away from you."
Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
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