You just knew it wasn’t going to be easy, didn’t you? Tuesday in Newark, the Florida Panthers had a chance to close out the New Jersey Devils and win their best-of-seven series in six games. Instead, the Cats fought back from a mid-game deficit only to drop game six 3-2 in overtime, sending the series to a seventh and final game. If there’s good news for the Panthers is that the deciding game will be held in front of the home folks at the Bank Atlantic Center Thursday night, where they’re just a few days removed from their best game in the series, a 3-0 shutout on Saturday.
Facing elimination, the Devils put together their most complete effort, dominating puck possession for much of the game and dominating the shot chart 40-16. For much of the night, the Panthers seemed more like a team playing to not make a mistake while waiting for a select opportunities to counter-attack. For the most part, it worked until Travis Zajac’s wrister beat Scott Clemmensen at 5:39 into the first overtime period to send it to the deciding game.
The goal erased an impressive comeback by the Cats after they found themselves down 2-0 early in the second period. Steve Bernier’s sharp angle shot (really just a throw on net) somehow beat Clemmensen five-hole and trickled into the net for a 1-0 lead late in the first. The Devils doubled the lead on a power play goal from Ilya Kovalchuk as he waltzed in on the backside of the Panthers penalty kill unmolested to bury it for the easiest goal he’ll ever score in the playoffs.
For the first time in a game in the series, it would not reach a 3-0 deficit as Kris Versteeg answered the Kovalchuk tally with his third goal of the series less than three minutes later as his flick on net got through Martin Brodeur to cut the lead to 2-1. At 12:49, Mr. Playoffs, Sean Bergenheim added his third goal of the series as he used some quick hands to collect a rebound and stuff it into the net past a stationary Brodeur to knot it at 2.
With the third period being a stalemate, the game headed to overtime. In the extra session, the Panthers did have a golden opportunity to finish the Devils but Stephen Weiss failed to get the puck on net as the Cats failed to convert a 2-on-1 rush early in the overtime. A short time later, Zajac’s tally sent the home folks in Jersey relieved and happy as they get to fight another day.
Credit Pete DeBoer and the Devils for making one huge adjustment for this game: staying out of the penalty box. In the Panthers three wins in the series, they’ve taken advantage of New Jersey mistakes and made them pay on the power play. Tuesday night, they committed one minor penalty (and even that one was not a great call from the referees) and the Panthers failed to capitalize on their only chance up a man.
And if the Panthers aren’t going to get the power play opportunities, they MUST get more pucks to the net at even strength. For most of this series, Brodeur has been average-to-good and has left a ton of rebounds. Even on the 16 shots he faced, he looked uncomfortable and seemed to fight the puck most of the evening. If the Panthers can’t muster 25-30 shots in game 7, they’re going to have a hard time winning. Too many times on Tuesday, the Panthers passed on shots to make the ‘cute’ pass. Get rid of the cute and put the puck on goal and that 16 year drought just might come to an end.
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