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Devils-Panthers: Heading for Jersey With a Deadlocked Series

Kittens, they are not; Panthers, they are and that explains why they're now the toast of South Florida. All it required was tying the opening round series with New Jersey on Sunday night at BankAtlantic Center.

The Devils had preferred that the Cats remained the toast of Florida; but more like burnt toast. However, for one very roaring night it was the other way around as Florida reversed roles and triumphed, 4-2, with Stephen Weiss getting a pair of power-play goals and ex-Devil John Madden one of the defensive stars. The fourth goal, by the way, was tallied into the open net with a second remaining.

"I didn't like the way things were offensively for two periods," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer. "Special teams were the difference and they were the hungrier team for the first two periods. But we'll take the split coming out of Florida and now we have to take care of business at home."

In Game 2 of the first round in Sunrise, the visitors from New Jersey strove for another bountiful first period like the one that won the opener. Kevin Dineen's Panthers wanted 20 minutes similar to their second period on Friday night that brought them to within a goal of the Devs.

Which is why much of the focus in Game 2 was on the manner in which each team handled the first 20 minutes.

Weiss wasted no time deciding that issue for the capacity crowd. In less than a minute, the veteran Floridian beat Martin Brodeur on a power play after Florida's Kris Versteeg won the face-off. The rebound out of a scramble went to the 10-year Tabby, who had a "gimme" that gave Marty no chance.

This was not the collapsable Florida sextet of Friday night; not by a long nor slap shot. In their second time around, the Cats were poised, physical, punctual and productive. Even on New Jersey's first period power -- er, powerless -- play, Florida had the better scoring opportunities.  

Hey, with only three shots on goal in the first frame, what kind of offense could New Jersey have had?

What's more, Florida opened the second period with a five-on-three power play for 1:43 and Weiss cashed in for his second goal on another Brodeur rebound. Down 2-0, the Devils, DeBoer's skaters couldn't even get untracked on their ensuing power play which resulted in another Panthers opportunity that just barely missed. 

If ever there was a complete character change of two clubs, this was it; at least for two periods. The visitors' offense was virtually non-existent and when it did exist, -- just eight shots for more than half a game -- Jose Theodore was ready, willing and able. 

No less disturbing was the failure of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac on the first line to generate anything close to a reasonably sustained offense. Ironically, the Devils’ fourth line on one shift put more pressure on Florida's defense than the other trio. 

Meanwhile, Marcel Goc got Florida's third goal on an angle shot that Brodeur bobbled before it just barely made it over the goal line. Down 3-0 after two, New Jersey offered a poor imitation of the club that triumphed in the opener. In the end, Brodeur's failure to handle that drive turned out to be THE decisive episode in the entire game. 

But, whoa!  Just like that Zajac -- moved to the second line -- and Kovalchuk scored early in third period within 1:14 to rattle the Floridians. Suddenly, the ice tilted toward the Florida end and it was yet another reversal of the Game 1 trend with the Devils desperately trying for the tying goal.

Over and over again, the Devils got close and CLOSER, but they never could grab that third goal cigar. Theodore wouldn't let them. The Florida goaltender was one save better than Brodeur and that was what the win was all about. So, we have a tied series with a couple of teams as close in ability as any pair in the playoffs.

Returning to The Rock on Tuesday night, the Devils will have to start the game as they did in Game 1; otherwise those Panthers will start looking like a pride of lions!

"We have to stay out of the penalty box," concluded DeBoer, "and play for 60 minutes!"


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