NEWARK, N.J. – If the Panthers and Devils do meet in the opening round of the playoffs, expect a lot of close games.
Saturday's game marked the fourth time the two have played with the game being a one goal affair going into the final minutes.
Florida didn't do much offensively against the Devils on Saturday, but really didn't need to. Goals from Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg and an empty netter from Mikael Samuelsson were enough as Scott Clemmensen made 27 saves against his former team to lift the Panthers to a 3-1 win at Prudential Center.
“I think the big difference between this group and the ones we have had before is the mental toughness,'' Clemmensen said. “We had new guys come in from different winning organizations and they know how to play in those [close] situations. Their panic level is so high. You just see the confidence.''
The Panthers and New Jersey split the season series.
Florida's win kept the Panthers atop the Southeast Division and the third slot in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey dropped to sixth in the East. If they both hold those positions, they'll play a few more games come April.
New Jersey swept Florida in the opening round of the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs – the last time Florida advanced to the postseason.
“These are two hard working teams,'' said Devils coach Pete DeBoer, who was fired by the Panthers after three seasons.
“I think we play similar styles and they've been entertaining games. I don't want to think about the playoffs right now. We have two months to go and I think they're saying the same thing with what they've been through. We're all day-to-day right now.''
If you believe the old adage that stats don't lie, the Panthers had a lot going against them Saturday. New Jersey opened the scoring 1:39 into the game when former Panthers winger Steve Bernier took a nice pass from Alexei Ponikarovsky and beat Clemmensen on the third shot of the day.
That was an omen the Panthers weren't coming out of this one with a win.
Instead, Bergenheim knocked in a long shot from Erik Gudbranson to tie the score in the first before Versteeg scored off a big rebound from Martin Brodeur in the second.
“This was a very satisfying win because it was built around a team effort,'' said Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, whose team has won four of six – and two straight – since the All-Star break.
“We got a lot of quality minutes out of players. We spread some of the responsibility around the lineup.''
The Panthers are just 8-16-5 when the opposing team scores first. Saturday's win was just the second in Florida's past 15 games in which it won when the opposition picked up that first goal.
Florida also earned a rare road win as the Panthers had won just three of their past 16 games away from Sunrise.
“When you're going through it, you don't really realize it,'' Stephen Weiss said. “I heard a stat [Saturday] and couldn't believe it. The games just come so fast so you get caught up and don't realize how long it has been. This was a big win for us. We had to dig down and find a way to win. And we did.''
() The Panthers lost defenseman Jason Garrison to an undisclosed 'lower body' injury and replaced him – temporarily – with Samuelsson.
With Garrison questionable for Sunday's game on Long Island, the Panthers will recall Colby Robak from their AHL club in San Antonio.
The Rampage played in Rochester, N.Y., – which was Florida's AHL affiliate until this past summer – on Saturday night.
() Goalie Jose Theodore is expected to start Sunday against the Islanders after missing Florida's past eight games with a sore knee. Theodore, originally injured Dec. 31 against Montreal, has missed 13 of the past 15 games.
Theodore has started both games against the Islanders this season and got his first shutout as a member of the Panthers in his Florida debut on Oct. 8 in New York. He left the home game against the Islanders on Oct. 22 with the score tied at 2; Jacob Markstrom relieved him and earned the win.
“The knee is really good so now it's just about getting back out there,'' Theodore said. “I needed the rest because it didn't feel good. I have a couple practices under my belt so I'm ready. It was tough sitting out and watching. It's good to be back with the team.''
() Florida could also have winger Jack Skille back in the lineup Sunday as he traveled with the team and skated with goalie coach Robb Tallas before Saturday's game. “He looks strong,'' Tallas said.
The Panthers will fly home from New York following Sunday's game and don't play again until Wednesday when Ottawa comes to Sunrise.
SUNDAY: PANTHERS AT ISLANDERS
When, Where: 3 p.m.; Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.
TV/Radio: FS Florida/WQAM-560
The series: Panthers lead 38-30-8 (Florida has won both this season)
The game: Both the Panthers and Islanders will be playing on back-to-back afternoons, with the Islanders beating visiting Los Angeles in overtime on Saturday. The Islanders have been playing very well of late, going 4-1-1 since the All-Star break. The Panthers have also won four of six during that span.