BY DAVID J. NEAL dneal@MiamiHerald.com
TWITTER: @djneal @OnFrozenPond
The big building in Broward planted between swamp and shopping during the optimistic 1990s has seen three names, two playoff series and, Thursday at 8:30 p.m., one Game 7.
The Panthers waited 12 calendar years to bring the NHL playoffs back to South Florida. They dragged clinching the Southeast Division title out to the last game of the season. Now, they’ve dragged – or, been dragged by New Jersey – to the last game of the NHL playoffs’ first round.
“We haven’t made it easy on ourselves all season long, so, why now?” Panthers winger Kris Versteeg said Wednesday.
Versteeg still felt the sting of an uncalled trip as he cut for the Jersey net in overtime of Tuesday’s Game 6 – “Guess the rules changed a bit.” Then again, considering an uncalled trip on the Panthers’ Sean Bergenheim started the sequence to the Panthers second goal Tuesday, perhaps it’s another case of things evening out. That’s the way things have gone in this series in which the cheap shots generally have been confined to Twitter spats between non-combatants over plastic rats.
Each team took a 3-0 lead in the first two games and saw it reduced to 3-2 before hanging on to win. Each team’s scored 15 goals. Both No. 1 goalies got yanked in Game 3 and both produced shutouts the next time they hit the ice, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur in Game 4 and the Panthers’ Jose Theodore in Game 5. Speaking of Theodore, who didn’t play in Game 6 because of an injury more secret in Sunrise than Secret Service activities in Colombia, he went through a half-hour practice Wednesday.
“You want to get back in there. You feel good about where your game is at and then there’s a let down,” Theodore said. “Obviously, it was frustrating to watch last game. But, today’s a new day and it’s good to be back on the ice.
“When you’re a kid, wne you play hockey, you imagine Gmae 7 in the Atnely Cup playoffs. It’s a game everybody wants to be part of and help the team win.”
Dineen, who has been coy about his choice of goaltender all season, said, “I just watched him for a few minutes and he looks pretty good out there this morning, so that’s encouraging for us. It gives us that option to go with him tomorrow night and that will be a health-based decision.
Questioned further, Dineen said while the Panthers trusted both Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, “Theo’s been our go-to guy and if he’s available, he’ll be the one running with it.”
Meanwhile, defenseman Jason Garrison, whose cannon shot helped the Panthers blast holes in New Jersey’s league-best penalty-killing unit over the first three games, said he’d likely be a game-time decision.
Game time’s 8:30 p.m., as the NHL chose to stagger the starts of this game and the Ottawa-Rangers Game 7.
“It’s going to be a long day,” Versteeg said. “You want to get started. But you do what’s best for the league. It’s a great time for us and great time to showcase our game.”
History favors neither team. Despite New Jersey’s four Stanley Cup Finals and three Cups since 1993, the Martin Brodeur Era, the franchise is only 6-7 in Game 7s, 3-5 on the road. And all those Cups and Game 7 wins came before the lockout. The post-lockout Devils suffered their own Collapse of 2009 when Carolina scored twice in the last 80 seconds for a 4-3 Game 7 win at New Jersey.
For the Panthers, their Game 7 history’s distance and brevity matches its irrelevance.
It’s been a driver’s age since that June 1996 Saturday night in Pittsburgh, when the Panthers won a Game 7 just the way you aren’t supposed to win them. Goalie John Vanbiesbrouck barely kept things even at 1 until Tom Fitzgerald’s third period line change slapshot careened off a leg and past Pittsburgh’s Tom Barrasso. The Panthers popped in an insurance goal for a 3-1 win and the Eastern Conference title.
In the Stanley Cup Final, Colorado ended the Panthers season in an epic Game 4 at Miami Arena. In fact, all three previous Panthers playoff appearances ended on home ice.
Of all the Game 7s, Dineen appeared in as a player, the one he recalled Wednesday didn’t end happily. Back when Carolina called a Hartford mall home, the Whalers went to overtime in Game 7 against Montreal in the 1986’s second round. A tight backhander by Montreal rookie Claude Lemieux sent the French-Canadian Hockey Night in Canada announcers into ecstasy and Canadiens forward in their march to an unlikely Stanley Cup.
But Dineen thought that resembled what’s going on now with the Panthers.
“I think it was a fan base in Hartford that had been re-invigorated,” he said. “There was an enthusiasm, an excitement in town. That’s a little bit what I feel here in South Florida with the amount of recognition you feel away from the rink, that people are engaged with our team. I know this team has a lot of personality, they’re really on board and it’s really an enjoyable time.”
Thursday, we’ll see if it continues.