For New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer, it had to feel like a cruel bit of deja vu. DeBoer, who admitted coming in that he’d like to beat his ex-employers, the Florida Panthers, stood behind his new bench with a 3-0 lead just over eight minutes left in the first period. The Devils were well on their way to giving their coach the win he so desired. But, if you followed the Panthers over the past few seasons, it wasn’t all that rare to see them gather a big early lead, only to let it slip away over the remainder of the game. Monday night at the Bank Atlantic Center, DeBoer’s old team gave him a glimpse of it from the other bench as the Panthers rallied back to score four unanswered goals to beat the Devils 4-3 in dramatic fashion.
The Panthers had a great chance to jump out to an early lead as penalties to Ilya Kovalchuk and Bryce Salvador gave them a 5-on-3 opportunity but couldn’t cash it in. Shortly after the penalty kill, the Devils exploded for three goals in 3:32. Kovalchuk struck first when he put back a rebound of a Henrik Tallinder point shot. Before that goal could even be announced, it was Petr Sykora’s turn to bang home a rebound, this time of a shot from rookie Adam Larsson 1:09 later. Dainius Zubrus made it 3-0 as he tapped in a Patrik Elias pass on a 2-on-1 as Jose Theodore couldn’t get over in time.
After the third goal, all eyes turned to the Panthers bench to see if coach Kevin Dineen was going to pull Theodore in favor of rookie Jacob Markstrom. Dineen said, despite the score, he wanted to stay with Theodore:
“I don’t hang those goals on my goalie…Jose has put a pretty good body of work for us the last two weeks. And he deserved a chance to rally with the team as we rallied around him. And I think, at the end of the day, our, like I like to say, our push back was very strong tonight and it continued continued for the final 40 minutes.”
Theodore was all to happy to remain in his net despite the rough start:
“As a goalie, you always want to stick in there and show that you have character and can bounce back. That’s exactly what I did and what we did as a team. I’m happy the coach decided to leave me in and it paid off.”
Coming out of the first intermission, the Panthers needed to start chipping away early if they were to have a shot at winning. Kris Versteeg got the comeback started just over five minutes into the second as the took a feed from Stephen Weiss and flipped it past Martin Brodeur. Five minutes later, Versteeg struck again, this time putting back a rebound of a Jason Garrison slap shot at the end of a workmanlike shift, making it 3-2.
The third period would start with the Devils nursing that tenuous one goal lead. The Panthers would put themselves in a dangerous spot, as they would follow up a Tallinder penalty with two of their own to put themselves at a 4-on-3 disadvantage. During the ensuing Jersey power play, Mike Weaver blocked an Elias slapper that ricocheted back to Weiss on the right boards, and then executed a perfect give and go with Garrison. Weiss raced in behind the defense, collected the perfect Garrison pass and buried it high over Brodeur’s glove hand to bring the Cats all the way back and make it a new hockey game with ten minutes to play. That was the good news. The bad news was the fact the Panthers were still shorthanded and still had 1:04 of a 5-on-3 to kill off. The quickly improving Florida penalty killing unit erased the advantage without much of a threat.
Once again, the Cats would wait until the very end to net the game winner. Weiss, who collected a rebound of his own shot in the right corner, fed a streaking Tomas Fleischmann, who showed Jedi-like patience on Star Wars night at the BAC, and held the puck until Brodeur committed himself and fired the puck in before the defense could recover.
The win gives the Panthers a 2-0 start to their four game holiday homestand and plenty of momentum heading into Wednesday night’s game against the New York Rangers, with both wins coming in dramatic fashion. And once again, it was the first line of Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann that come up huge again. That line may not have the most name recognition in the league, but they’ve played as well as other line you can name and they’ve carried the Panthers to the the top of the Southeast Division. The line collected seven points in this game with Weiss and Versteeg each collected three points a piece and all three are now in the top 20 in scoring in the league. Eventually, this team is going to need more secondary scoring, but what they’ve done, along with the defensive unit, has been nothing short of amazing.
For DeBoer, it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. He’ll get three more cracks at his old team, but some of the new Panthers admitted they wanted to win the game for their teammates as much Pete wanted it. But, in my mind, there really shouldn’t be much animosity towards DeBoer (although, I’m guilty of taking a couple of playful jabs on Twitter). He did a good job with the talent level he was given to work with and, in his first season, brought the Panthers closer to the playoffs than they’ve been in a decade.
Game three of the Thanksgiving Feast is Wednesday at the New York Rangers, and the HBO 24/7 camera crew make their first visit of the season.
Check out some postgame video over on the The Rat Trick You Tube Page, including our 1-on-1 with Jose Theodore.
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Topics: Adam Larsson, Dainius Zubrus, Florida Panthers, Henrik Tallinder, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Garrison, Jose Theodore, Kevin Dineen, Kris Versteeg, Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Patrik Elias, Pete Deboer, Petr Sykora, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann