June 1, 1996. That was the last time the Florida Panthers had a chance to close out a playoff series with a win. They won that game 3-1 over the Pittsburgh PenguinsStanley Cup Finals. Thanks to Saturday’s 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils at the Bank Atlantic Center, they are on the verge of winning their first playoff series since that day. And while a win in one of the next two games against the New Jersey Devils won’t bring home the Prince of Wales Trophy, it will be no less big to a franchise that has not had much success since that improbable run.
Following Thursday’s shutout to Martin Brodeur and the Devils, coach Kevin Dineen maade the decision to go back to Jose Theodore, who responded with a shutout of his own on this night. After a scoreless first period, the Panthers finally gave Theodore some goal support on, wait for it….the power play. It took all of 30 seconds for the Cats to cash in a Marek Zidlicky interference penalty as Kris Versteeg one-timed home a pass from Stephen Weiss from below the left face off circle for a 1-0 lead. Despite having three more cracks at Brodeur with the man advantage, they were unable to get the second goal and took the small lead to the third.
Florida’s second goal would come on a play that has come to personify this team. Shawn Matthias and Scottie Upshall would chop away at a puck in the Panthers zone, outworking the Devils defenseman, before Matthias was able to put the puck in the left corner of the offensive zone. Versteeg outraced everyone to the puck, including Brodeur who was awaiting the puck in the trapezoid behind the net, before flipping it back to a trailing Upshall, who easily flipped it into the open net to make it 2-0. With the Devils net empty, Tomas Kopecky would put the baby to bed as he was hooked by Ilya Kovalchuk on a breakaway which resulted in an automatic goal and a 3-0 win.
There aren’t many times when you can evaluate a team’s performance and say that everyone who played did a great job but, that’s the case from Saturday night. Tyson Strachan came up from San Antonio to have a solid, mistake-free game while collected over 13 minutes of ice time. Not bad for a guy whose focus was the Chicago Wolves until this past Thursday night. Matthias and Upshall finally got on the score sheet after a series of hard work with little to show for it. And then of course, there’s Theodore. He easily could’ve checked out after getting pulled on Tuesday, where he received zero defensive support in finding himself on the wrong end of a 3-0 deficit but, as he’s done this season, he responded with his play. He, very easily, could’ve complained about losing the starting gig for game 4 but instead chose to keep quite and support his replacement and not upset team chemistry. That type of veteran attitude is one of the chief reasons Dale Tallon sought him out last July 1.
If you’re wondering what this team is all about, you need only go back and look at the build up to Upshall’s goal. Every bit of success this team has had has come from effort and hard work. There’s no doubt that the Devils hold all of the aces when it comes to individual talent but save for a few periods of Jersey dominance, the Panthers have outworked, outhustled and outsmarted the opponent that was supposed to have put them away by now. That effort now has the Panthers one win away from moving on to the second round when just about everyone had them making tee times. They’re going to need a similar effort Tuesday if they want to close it out and avoid a game 7 as they can prepare to get hard-charging, veteran Devils team.
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Topics: Bank Atlantic Center, Florida Panthers, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg, Marek Zidliky, Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Price Of Wales Trophy, Rats, Scottie Upshall, Shawn Matthias, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Kopecky, Tyson Strachan