NEWARK, N.J. – A one-game showdown to win their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
Neither New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer nor Florida coach Kevin Dineen is complaining about the prospect. The series between the sixth-seeded Devils and third-seeded Panthers has been close, so it’s appropriate it comes down to 60 minutes, or more.
The Devils staved off elimination and forced the deciding contest when Travis Zajac scored at 5:39 of overtime in a 3-2 win over the Panthers on Tuesday night.
Game 7 will be played in Sunrise, Fla. on Thursday night.
“They are fun to be part of,” said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who has played in two Game 7s to decide Stanley Cup titles, not just series. “When you’re a kid you always go out and say ‘this is Game 7 for all the marbles.’ It brings back good memories because of that. You don’t need to be nervous. You need to embrace the situation and make the best out of it.”
Dineen smiled when asked about playing in a Game 7 that would give the Panthers their first series win since 1996.
“We’re fine,” he said. “We’re going back home. This is where we are. It comes down to one game. Obviously you go to overtime and you’d like to put things to bed, but that’s the nature of it. It will make for a very exciting game on Thursday.”
DeBoer hesitated for a split second when asked if he would have settled for one game to decide everything before the series began.
“At the start of the season?” he said, drawing some laughs.
DeBoer then got serious.
“All you have to do is look around the league to appreciate how tough playoffs are,” the first-year Devils coach said. “Look at the quality of some of the teams that are sitting on the sidelines right now. Absolutely, we’ll take one game. We’ve had one of the best road records in the league and guys are comfortable to play a good one.”
Two other series in the conference are also headed to Game 7s. Washington will be at second-seeded Boston on Wednesday and Ottawa will be at the top-seeded Rangers on Thursday.
The Devils had the better of the play in Game 6 at the Prudential Center, outshooting Florida 42-16.
Steve Bernier and Ilya Kovalchuk staked the Devils to a 2-0 lead early in the second period but the Panthers rallied to tie the game on goals by Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim.
Zajac, who played in only 15 games this season because of an Achilles’ tendon injury that required surgery in August, ended the contest, scoring on a counterattack after the Panthers threatened the 39-year-old Brodeur in a scramble around his crease.
Zajac cleared the puck from in front of the net and started a rush up the ice. Zach Parise took his cross-ice pass and gave the puck to Kovalchuk, who found Zajac skating down the left wing for a shot along the ice that beat former teammate Scott Clemmensen.
“It’s fun to be back competing and playing at this time of year,” said Zajac, who made his season debut in December before having to shut it down again until late March.
“When you have a setback, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Zajac, who also set up Kovalchuk’s goal. “As I went through the process again, I felt better and better. It was just about being patient. I knew I would be back at some time in the new year. I was able to get a few games in and prepare for the playoffs.”
Zajac’s third goal of the series sparked a wild celebration in the corner and sent both teams packing for a trip to Florida.
“It’s been a frustrating year for him,” Parise said of Zajac, who had played in 401 straight games before his injury. “It’s got to be rewarding and satisfying for him to get that one. He’s played really well for us in the series. He’s a good guy to play with. He makes my job easier. He makes Kovy’s job easier.”
Clemmensen was outstanding, making 39 saves in an emergency start for the injured Jose Theodore.
“I think he missed it, the shot,” Clemmensen said of Zajac’s last shot. “My D also may have gotten a stick on it. I don’t think he was shooting where he wanted to, but went under the pad. I thought he was trying to shoot it high.”
Despite being outshot 29-10 in the opening 40 minutes, the Panthers rallied from a 2-0 deficit and entered the third period tied at 2-all.
The remarkable aspect was that the Panthers took only four shots in the second period and tallied on the two of the first three.
Versteeg cut the deficit to 2-1 at 7:05 of the period. Stephen Weiss centred the puck from along the left sideboards and Versteeg’s shot hit off the skate of Devils forward Alexei Ponikarovsky and into the open side of the net. Brodeur never had a chance.
The tying goal came at 12:49 after the referees ignored a slash by Bergenheim that knocked Kovalchuk to the ice. It led to a 4-on-2 rush. Brodeur made the initial stop on a shot from the between the circles by Tyson Strachan, but Bergenheim came late and tucked the rebound into an open net with teammate Marcel Goc hanging on the crossbar.
“This series has been going back and forth,” Bergenheim said. “I have no doubts we will have the energy for Game 7.”
Kovalchuk gave the Devils a 2-0 lead earlier in the period, slam-dunking a pass from Zajac into the net with 4 seconds left on a power play..
The Devils had a big territorial advantage in the final 10 minutes of the first period and it finally paid off when Bernier beat Clemmensen with a bad-angle shot at 16:37 of the period.
NOTES: The NBA’s Nets played their final home game in New Jersey on Monday night and all the team banners and retired jersey numbers that hung from the rafters of the Prudential Center were gone on Tuesday. … Panthers D Jason Garrison, their leading goal scorer on the back line, missed his third straight game with a lower-body injury. …The Panthers did not discuss the nature of Theodore’s injury.