BY GEORGE RICHARDS [email protected]
With his team gathered around him on the ice after the morning skate, Ed Jovanovski had a few simple words of wisdom.
“Enjoy the moment,'' he recalled saying.
The Panthers – and their long-suffering fans – did just that on Saturday night.
Florida was most definitely the aggressor as it wrested control of the best-of-seven series against New Jersey with a 3-0 victory at BankAtlantic Center.
The Panthers are a victory away from an improbable berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals with Game 6 coming Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
“It's all about hard work. That's what pays off right now,'' said Shawn Matthias, whose strong puck play in the third led to Florida's second goal. “We wanted the puck and we kept coming. We didn't let them come at us. We went to them.''
The Panthers skated to a scoreless tie in the opening period but thanks to five power play chances in the second – one was for four minutes – was able to control the flow of the game in the second.
Florida put 32 shots up against Martin Broduer, finally beating him when Kris Versteeg whipped a shot from the left circle at the four minute mark of the second on the Panthers' first power play chance of the night.
The Panthers were shutout by Broduer in Game 4 and hadn't scored against the Devils since Brian Campbell's game-winner in the second period of Game 3. Florida had gone 1 hour 57 minutes 26 seconds between goals.
“I don't blow smoke, but that is a hard team to play against,'' said coach Kevin Dineen.
As good as Broduer was on Saturday, Florida's Jose Theodore played the match game. Theodore, who watched most of Tuesday's win and all of Thursday's loss from the bench, was outstanding and made 30 saves of his own to record his second postseason shutout.
“We played a full 60 minute game. It was fun seeing everyone stay the course and play our system,'' Theodore said. “They had a couple chances in front of me and then we went and scored some goals. .-.-. I thought we came out strong and focused. Some of the games we had some letdowns, but we can learn from this and keep it going.''
Theodore was definitely tested in the third period when Erik Gudbranson was called for a roughing penalty with 2:08 remaining and the Panthers holding a 2-0 lead. The Devils pulled Brodeur and went with six skaters to Florida's four, yet Theodore held strong and gave Tomas Kopecky a chance for the insurance empty net goal with 34 ticks left.
Kopecky's shot never made it into the empty net as he was mauled by Ilya Kovalchuk on the breakaway to the net as the officials awarded the short-handed goal by rule.
“We worked our butts off to get the lead and to build on it,'' Versteeg said. “It was exciting, a lot of fun. But we have a lot in front of us. You remember what the crowd did for us.''
Dineen and Florida's playoff veterans had been preaching that the Panthers need to sacrifice and lay things all on the line in the playoffs. Even though it sounds cliché, that's exactly what the Panthers did on Saturday.
Whether it was Gudbranson diving to clear a puck sans stick or Matthias fighting his way past Jersey defenders Marek Zidlicky and Kovalchuk for a loose puck near the blueline, the Panthers left the arena knowing they left whatever they had on the ice.
Matthias' hard-fought puck battle ended up on Versteeg's stick as he worked behind the goal. Versteeg then spotted Scottie Upshall flashing in and fed him a sweet pass as Upshall banged the puck into a net Brodeur was out of as he was trying to get it himself.
“Those are the little things that win you games at this time of the season,'' Brian Campbell said. “Everyone has to do that in the playoffs. You have to pay the price to win right now.''
Said Dineen: “We had some [battles]; that's the kind of video you can sit on and say 'that was the difference in the game'.''
() The Panthers are really struggling to control the practice of rubber rats being thrown onto the ice after goals – and during play.
The team figures Devils fans are to blame for the rodents being tossed onto the ice in the final minutes as the officials could call a delay penalty on the home team.
“It was so nice playing here in front of our home fans. It was electric,'' Dineen said. “I am a little concerned about the rats. I know there are a lot of Devils fans throwing them out there.''
() The announced sellout crowd of 19,513 was the largest to see a Panthers playoff game in franchise history.
The Lightning hold the NHL record for biggest postseason crowd as it drew 28,183 to the Thunderdome (now Tropicana Field) on April 23, 1996 for an opening-round game against the Flyers.