BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com
NEWARK, N.J. – The Devils were a desperate team, no doubt.
And if there was any thought they weren't, one just had to watch the way they blocked every puck they could get to, hit every member of the Panthers nearby.
The Panthers danced with fire for much of Tuesday's Game 6 and didn't survive the night as Travis Zajac took a pretty feed from Ilya Kovalchuk to beat Scott Clemmensen and the Panthers 3-2 in overtime.
New Jersey's win forced a Game 7 in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal with the Panthers playing host to the Devils in the loser-goes-on-vacation game Thursday at BankAtlantic Center. Time and broadcast information will be determined Wednesday.
“It's already forgotten,'' said Sean Bergenheim, whose goal gave the Panthers life in the second period. “I'm looking forward to a Game 7 in our home barn. In the end, they won a lot of 1-on-1 battles and that was the key. They had a lot of shots and that was from winning those battles.''
New Jersey spent much of the game in the Florida zone, dominating the offensive flow for much of the night. Florida had hoped to close out New Jersey and win its first postseason series since beating the Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference final.
Instead, the Panthers head home and try to end the Devils season there.
The Panthers were outshot 42-16 in the game – including 6-3 in overtime – as Clemmensen had to stand tall to give Florida a shot. He did, making 39 saves in relief of an injured Jose Theodore.
“I wanted to give us a chance, that's all,'' Clemmensen said. “We scored the second goal and that gave us life, gave us some urgency. But [the deficit] was never more than two. We played a tight game and we were in a position to win. We were tied in the third, went into overtime on the road. It could have gone either way.''
The Devils were extremely physical early on and outhit the Panthers 15-10 in an opening period in which New Jersey took a 1-0 goal on a hard angle shot from Steve Bernier. A member of the Panthers last season after coming over from Vancouver in the Keith Ballard trade, Bernier has two goals in the series against (some of) his former teammates.
Bernier's goal came when he corralled a loose puck and whipped it at Clemmensen and the puck hit his stick and through his skates with 3:23 left in the period.
The sold-out crowd at Prudential Center went crazy early in the second as the Devils took a 2-0 lead on a power play goal from Kovalchuk. With Tomas Kopecky in the box for a high stick, Kovalchuk snuck in behind Clemmensen and knocked in a nice feed from Travis Zajac with just four seconds remaining in the penalty.
Only the Panthers weren't done. Not by a long shot. Despite some fans already chatting about a for-sure Game 7 on Thursday, the Panthers rallied with another big second period.
Florida, which had outscored New Jersey 7-1 in the second period coming into the night, picked up two big goals to tie things up.
First, Kris Versteeg slid in through the slot and flung a sweet pass from linemate Stephen Weiss past Martin Brodeur less than three minutes after Kovalchuk scored. It was the third goal of the series for Versteeg after he only had one goal in Florida's final 18 games of the season.
Later in the period, Bergenheim scored his third of this postseason and 12th in the past two by knocking a loose puck past Brodeur with 7:11 left. Tyson Strachan, filling in for the injured Jason Garrison, took a shot that Brodeur stopped yet couldn't find. Bergenheim was more than happy to charge in and take brief possession of it, tapping it into the net as Brodeur failed to move.
Both teams had a few chances in the third period although neither scored as the game went to overtime for the first time during the series.
Florida was outshot 7-3 in the third period but had a great chance late when Mikael Samuelsson picked up a loose puck when Mark Fayne whiffed on a pass.
Samuelsson worked the puck deep and dipped and dodged his way into the slot, pulling Brodeur out of the crease. Samuelsson's backhand shot found Brodeur, however, as Bergenheim crashed the net hoping for a piece of the puck.
“Offensive zone position definitely leaned toward the Devils and that was the difference,'' coach Kevin Dineen said.
“When you play as much defense as we had to, it tends to wear you down. Our quality chances came in spurts. They put a lot of pressure in our zone. That was probably their best game in this series. The had a heck of a lot of desperation and pushed.''