After Florida’s first playoff game in 12 years opened with a thud, giving the New Jersey Devils a 3-0 lead just 15 minutes in, the Panthers needed something to build on. Anything, really. Luckily for Florida, while the franchise may be lacking in playoff experience, the roster is not. 15 of the 20 players that dressed for the Panthers have playoff experience, and it’s come through in spades. Florida battled back in game 1, coming up just short after making it a one goal game late in the 2nd period, and the Comeback Cats were able to carry that momentum into game 2.
Florida needed just 11 seconds to draw the first penalty of game 2, and 23 seconds to open the scoring. Stephen Weiss, who’s played through 637 regular season games before making his playoff debut, found a rebound to his liking and deposited it behind Martin Brodeur for the game’s 1st goal. Another early period power play goal from Weiss just 1:12 into the 2nd, and the Panthers held a 2-0 lead and were in complete control. Marcel Goc was able to beat Brodeur from a sharp angle to increase the lead to 3 late in the 2nd period, and Panther fans were ready to celebrate the team’s first playoff win since April 17, 1997, almost 15 years to the day.
Unfortunately, the Devils weren’t quite ready to fold. Just as Florida came back from a 3-0 deficit to draw within one, New Jersey scored twice in the opening 2 minutes of the 3rd period to put some unrest in Pantherland. But just as the Panthers were unable to find the game tying goal in game 1, the Devils couldn’t solve Jose Theodore in the final 18 minutes, and an empty netter for Tomas Fleischmann as time expired would seal victory. Cue the rats.
For those that don’t remember the Panthers run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, it was accompanied by fans hurling plastic rats onto the ice following every goal. While the NHL has since made a rule outlawing the in-game celebration, the Panthers have returned to their past, not by bringing back the red jerseys, but by encouraging victory rats to be thrown after each home win.
While the Panthers lost home ice advantage in that game 1 loss, Florida has to feel good about where they are as they head north to New Jersey. Take away the opening 15 minutes of the series, in which Florida was shorthanded for 4 of those 15 minutes on what can only be described as a mind bogglingly bad call (something that has become depressingly common in first round games this playoff season), and where Ed Jovanovski admitted the team may have had some jitters, Florida has controlled the last 5 periods of hockey, holding a 6-2 advantage in that time frame. And while the Devils were certainly in the ascendency during the final 20 minutes of game 2, Florida held its ground. They were smart while sticking to their game plan, a simple chip and chase mantra. And possibly the most important aspect of the opening 2 games, the special teams has gone Florida’s way. While the Devils were putting up the top ranked penalty kill in the league during the regular season, the Panthers were excelling on the power play, scoring at a near 19% clip, good enough for 7th in the league and 2nd in the eastern conference. In the early going of this series, Florida has controlled the special teams battle. The Panthers have scored thrice against that top ranked Devils PK in the first two games of the series, while killing off 8 of 9 minor penalties against.
Another advantage Florida has found that can’t be overlooked is their shut down line of Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, and Sean Bergenheim. Matched up consistently against the Devils top line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Travis Zajak, those Devil forwards were a combined -5 with just 2 goals, 0 assists in the first 2 games of the series. It will be interesting to see what Devils coach Pete DeBoer does when the home ice advantage of having the last line change is his, but for the first two games, it was advantage Florida.
The series now heads north for games 3 and 4, and the Panthers simply need to maintain what they established over the past 5 periods. Simple, stupid hockey, take advantage on special teams, and don’t panic. Despite the disappointing start to the playoff season, winning the last 5 periods of hockey and reestablishing themselves in this series can only boost the confidence of the Panthers going forward. Game 2 is Tuesday, 7:00 pm et from the Rock.