Florida got off to slow starts in all but one of the four games against the Devils during the regular season, falling behind early on in three.
Why would the playoffs be any different?
Despite coach Kevin Dineen stressing a fast start, the Panthers surrendered three goals in the opening period as the Devils moved up and down the ice with ease. Then came the second. Florida scored twice in the middle frame but the Devils muddied things up in the third and held on for a 3-2 win in front of an announced 19,119 at BankAtlantic Center.
New Jersey now holds a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series; Game 2 is Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (NBC Sports Net).
“The next one is the biggest game and it goes from there,'' said goalie Jose Theodore, who faced a Panthers postseason record 26 shots in the opening period. “You definitely don't want to go into their building down 2-0. We settled down in the second and it turned out to be too late. We have to be ready from the start.''
Dineen said he didn't feel his team showed any opening night jitters although it was apparent the Panthers' defensemen – who collectively had the least postseason experience – weren't ready for prime time early on.
The Devils took their first lead 6:31 in when Panthers-killer Patrik Elias dipped and dodged and put his team's 13th shot past Theodore. Later in the period, Shawn Matthias – also making his postseason debut – put an elbow into New Jersey's Andy Greene.
Instead of being called for a two minute minor for elbowing, Greene smacked himself with his own stick drawing blood. The ref only saw the blood and Matthias was given a four-minute penalty for high-sticking.
Florida came close to surviving the extended power play, but with eight seconds remaining, Dainius Zubrus walked in on Theodore after Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur (5-0 against the Panthers in the postseason) started the play with a slick pass to David Clarkson.
Less than a minute later, former Panthers winger Ryan Carter got around Ed Jovanovski and made it 3-0 with 5:04 left in the period. New Jersey's 26 shots on goal were the most in a postseason game since San Jose had 27 in a period against Calgary four years ago.
“It's tough to spot them three goals in the playoffs. We obviously needed a better start,'' Jovanovski said. “We scratched and clawed for space in the second and third and got some goals. We just ran out of time. It's never fun giving up  shots. Theodore really kept us in the game.''
Said Dineen: “Twenty-six shots was pretty indicative of the play in the first period. It didn't look pretty. Their pressure was a big difference. We got outplayed in our own building.''
The Panthers roared back in the second and didn't much resemble that team in the first. The Panthers looked sharp with the puck and finally broke Brodeur when Sean Bergenheim (nine goals with Tampa Bay last spring) continued his host postseason ways by scoring 7:33 into the period.
Bergenheim's goal gave the large red-clad crowd some hope and the place went crazy with 4:18 left in the second when Kris Versteeg put the puck between Brodeur's skates to make it 3-2.
Yet that was all the Panthers could get. The Devils clogged up the middle of the ice in the third as they went into prevent mode as the third period seemed to zip by. The Panthers outshot the Devils17-12 in the final 40 minutes.
“I think there was a mix of nerves and rust out there,'' Versteeg said. “You don't want to make too many excuses. We will give ourselves a chance if we found 60 minutes. I definitely thought we were coming back. We need to get the early lead next time.''