BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com
The Panthers aren't used to being in the situation of closing out a playoff series. After all, it's been 16 years since they've done it last.
Believe it or not, that may be a better historical perspective than the ones the Devils have going into Tuesday's pivotal sixth game of their opening round series.
The Devils have lost their past four games in which they were facing elimination – including three straight at the Prudential Center in Newark.
New Jersey, which has won the Stanley Cup three times since 1995, hasn't escaped the opening round of the playoffs since 2007.
The pressure is on. And it's not just on the Devils.
“There's desperation on both sides,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “Our feeling is that we're enjoying this process. It's not easy – there are a lot of ice bags being used – but no one wants this to stop. It's a great feeling.''
The Panthers, in their first postseason dance since 2000, can keep New Jersey's unwanted streak alive with a win Tuesday.
Florida would advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a victory in Game 6; If the Devils win, the series returns to South Florida for Game 7 on Thursday.
“We have a lot of confidence in this room,'' Brian Campbell said. “We know what is at stake here but we have to have confidence and be loose. You have to be prepared mentally and be ready to battle. We know it's going to be tough, but it's fun. You want to win those games, take the series, in their building.''
Winning in Newark won't come easy – not when facing a desperate Devils squad. New Jersey has taken control in three of the first five games with either a fast start at the beginning of a game – or a quick start to a period. In Game 1, the Devils held a 3-0 lead in the opening period.
In each of the first five games, one of the two teams has had a 3-0 lead at one point. The Panthers figure if the Devils continue that trend in Game 6, they're in big trouble.
“The tempo has usually been set from the start of the game. I expect nothing less from a team in desperation mode down one,'' Dineen said. “Two clubs will be colliding very early in the game. We all have the thoughts in our head that we want this thing over; they want to keep going.
“One area we've prided ourselves on this season is our road play. We need to go in there and make a statement early. There will be no sitting on anything. I think both teams will leave it all out there.''
The Panthers split the first two games of the series in New Jersey so they know they can win at the Prudential Center.
Truth is, the Panthers didn't always play their best hockey in last week's games held in Newark. In some parts, far from it.
The Devils jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first six-plus minutes of Game 3 only to watch the Panthers storm back and take a 4-3 lead in the second. Florida hung on for that win. On Thursday, New Jersey took a 1-0 lead into the third before getting three in the final period and rolling to a 4-0 win.
Coach Pete DeBoer isn't too frantic about going back to Newark – where the Devils are just 4-8 in postseason games since moving over from the Meadowlands.
“I think our group is mentally tough,'' DeBoer said on a conference call on Sunday. “I expect we’ll be very good. .-.-. Pressure comes with the playoffs. I don’t think you have to say anything about it. I think the guys understand the situation they’re in. They can count. We’ve got to win.”
The Devils know their backs are against the wall. But they also know they can beat the Panthers.
Florida has a little wiggle room remaining in the series. The Devils are down to their last out.
“We’re not done yet. We can win two in a row,” Ilya Kovalchuk told reporters. “We did it a lot of times this year.”
The Panthers, however, are the only team in this series to win two straight games (two and three). Can they do it again and move on to the NHL's Elite Eight for the first time since 1996?
“We know what to expect from them, but we just need to worry about ourselves,'' Stephen Weiss said. “We have to get our starts under control in their building. We do that, we'll be fine.''
TUESDAY'S GAME 6: PANTHERS AT DEVILS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network/WQAM-560
The series: Florida leads 3-2 (Panthers won season series 2-1-1)
Up next: Game 7, if necessary, Thursday at BankAtlantic Center (time, TV TBA)