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Florida Panthers Done in by Old 'Friends': Kovalchuk, Elias fuel Devils 5-2 win over Cats, Spoil Florida Debut of John Madden

KovNEWARK, N.J. – The Panthers brought an old friend back to New Jersey Friday night before being reacquainted with some Devils who have done them in over the years. 

Florida coach Kevin Dineen put center John Madden in the starting lineup for his Panthers debut against his former team. Later, it was Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk helping lead the Devils to a 5-2 win at Prudential Center.   

Madden, who signed with the Panthers on Wednesday, spent a decade playing for the Devils and won two of his three Stanley Cups here.

Elias, playing in his 1,000th NHL game – all with Jersey – scored his 22nd goal in 50 games against the Panthers in the second period. Kovalchuk got his 34th in 56 games against Florida with 8:30 remaining to win it. Most of Kovalchuk's damage against the Panthers came when he was playing for Atlanta.

“Their top-end, top-paid players definitely produced,'' Dineen said. 

The Panthers picked up just one of four points during a two-night stretch in the New York area, losing in overtime to the Rangers on Thursday. Florida has lost a season-high six straight road games, getting points in three.

New Jersey only led by one when Kovalchuk scored his second of the night into an empty net with 59.3 seconds remaining.

“We had an answer for them when they scored the first couple of times,'' Dineen said. “I liked the play of some of our players, but it was not a complete game for us. .-.-. It was a tough road game for us, but for the most part, the effort was there.''

Florida remains atop the Southeast Division and leads idle Washington by four as the Panthers hit their midseason point. The Panthers, who haven't been in first this late in a season since March 2000, never led Friday and have lost two of three to the Devils. 

The Panthers 48 points at midseason are fourth-highest in franchise history and most since getting 54 in 1999-2000. An extra point for winning shootouts didn't come into play in the NHL until 2005. 

The Devils opened the scoring when rookie Adam Henrique backhanded one top shelf past Panthers rookie Jacob Markstrom 3:53 into the game. Florida matched the goal when Mikael Samuelsson powered a puck left by linemate Marcel Goc from 45 feet out past backup Johan Hedberg less than four minutes later. 

Then it was Elias' turn to score, with Florida tying it up again when Krys Barch picked up his first of the season by skipping it through. Barch, suspended for Thursday's game for an 'inappropriate comment' said he would trade that goal for a Panthers win.

“You want the two points at the end of the night,'' Barch said. “It's kind of bittersweet. We still lost in the end and that's tough. You look at both conferences and it's so tight.''

Barch's shot would be the end of the Panthers scoring with Kovalchuk making it 3-2 past the midway point of the third. With 2:52 left, Zach Parise got called for a delay penalty and the Panthers eventually sat Markstrom and went with two extra skaters. Despite some chances, Florida couldn't put it past Hedberg with Kovalchuk and Parise depositing pucks into an empty net.

“I'm not crazy about pulling a goalie early,'' Dineen said. “We had 40 seconds left and you have to win those battles.''

-- Madden confirmed Friday that his hold up in signing with the Panthers had to do with obtaining a U.S. work visa. Madden, who is from Ontario but had been working out in the Minneapolis area, had his visa expire after the Minnesota Wild didn't resign him after last season. 

Madden left South Florida after his physical last week and returned to Canada to get the paperwork done. “There were a few days of holidays so it took a little while,'' he said.