BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com
South Florida was introduced to what a Game 7 playoff hockey game is all about Thursday.
Then it went into Friday morning.
The highs, the lows and the utter desperation of trying to keep a season alive makes for fantastic theater. For the first time, one of those winner-take-all games every hockey fan talks about was hosted by the Panthers.
Surely those red-clad fans who packed the BankAtlantic Center for the Panthers opening round finale against the Devils left with sore throats and higher blood pressure and a sense of what could have been.
Florida, despite playing about as good as it could in the third period, watched Adam Henrique score with 3:47 gone in second overtime as the Devils pulled out its second straight 3-2 overtime win to advance.
The Panthers trailed 2-0 going into the third period but got power play goals from Stephen Weiss at 5:02 of the period and the equalizer from Marcel Goc with 3:28 left in regulation. Goc's goal also came on a power play as the Devils were called for a delay of game.
New Jersey, the sixth seed in the east despite having eight more points than the Southeast Division champion Panthers, advance to play Philadelphia in the conference semifinals.
Florida ends what has been a surprisingly successful season with overtime losses in its final two games. The Panthers, it should be noted, led the league in overtime losses this season.
As bad as the Panthers were in the second period – Florida took just two shots on goal – they were a completely different bunch in the third.
The Panthers came hard at Martin Brodeur and the Devils, finally breaking through and making it a 2-1 game when Stephen Weiss one-timed a soft pass from Brian Campbell 5:02 into the period. Florida held a 4-on-3 advantage at that point because of various penalties and a crowd that booed after a horrid second period were on their feet.
Florida played like a veteran-led team desperate to keep its season going through the third period and tied things up when Goc followed up a big shot from Sean Bergenheim.
The Devils, who faced elimination at home in Game 6 on Tuesday before winning in the extra frame, got off to a quick start with rookie Adam Henrique tipping in a long shot from Anton Volchenkov 1:29 into the game.
Jose Theodore, back in net after missing Game 6 with what's believed to be knee stiffness, didn't seem to see the puck coming as Henrique somehow got enough movement on it to put it through Theodore's skates.
“They got one lucky tip,'' Tomas Kopecky said at the first intermission. “We weren’t in a lane and we were kind of cruising around in our zone and it ended up in our net.''
Florida played strong for much of the second half of the opening period. Despite being outshot 5-0 in the first five minutes, Florida charged hard at Brodeur, the hardy playoff veteran, and ended with 12 shots in the period. Unfortunately for the Panthers, none of them found their way home.
Kopecky added at the intermission that if the Panthers played that way in the second period “we'll be fine.'' Well, they didn't.
Florida managed just two shots in the period – the second came with 90 seconds left – as Brodeur had plenty of time to look around the arena and take in the scenery.
The Devils, meanwhile, made it a 2-0 game midway through the period when Stephen Gionta backhanded a shot past Theodore through traffic.
Tomas Fleischmann appeared to make it a 2-1 game less than two minutes into the third period but his goal was waved off as Shawn Matthias was called for goalie interference after being checked into Brodeur by Henrique. Florida had to wait a few more minutes for its 10-year veteran in Weiss to break the ice against Brodeur.
--Kopecky and teammate John Madden had a hard collision at center ice early in the opening period with Madden taking the brunt of it. Madden hit the ice and stayed face down for a few moments as play continued, blood pooling on the ice.
Madden was eventually helped to his feet and taken into the locker room for treatment. Madden returned to the game later in the first period.