Panthers claw back to even series with Devils

Panthers 4 Devils 2 SUNRISE, Fla. — Stephen Weiss scored the first two playoff goals of his 10-year NHL career, Jose Theodore stopped 23 shots and the Florida Panthers got their first playoff victory in nearly 15 years, beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 on Sunday night to even the first-round series at a game apiece.

Panthers 4 Devils 2

SUNRISE, Fla. — Stephen Weiss scored the first two playoff goals of his 10-year NHL career, Jose Theodore stopped 23 shots and the Florida Panthers got their first playoff victory in nearly 15 years, beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 on Sunday night to even the first-round series at a game apiece.

Marcel Goc had a goal and an assist for the Panthers, who survived a frantic Devils rally in the third. Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk scored in the first 2:02 of the third period, and Martin Brodeur made 20 saves for New Jersey, losing a playoff game to Florida for the first time in six career post-season starts against the Panthers.

Tomas Fleischmann had an empty-net goal as time expired and Florida fans littered the ice with hundreds of toy rats — a tradition that dates to the Panthers’ run to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals. Game 3 in the Eastern Conference series is Tuesday night in New Jersey.

“Feels good,” Weiss said. “Obviously, these fans have been waiting a long time for this kind of hockey and this is a big win for us. Not the start we wanted in the third period, but this is a big win.”

It was the Panthers’ first playoff win in 5,478 days — they beat the New York Rangers 3-0 on April 17, 1997, a year before the arena they currently call home even opened. Of course, a streak like that wasn’t going to end easily.

Florida led 3-0 going into the second intermission. Barely 2 minutes into the final period, the lead was sliced to 3-2.

Zajac scored 48 seconds into the third, and before the scoring on that goal was even announced, Kovalchuk redirected Adam Henrique’s shot past Theodore to get the Devils within one.

New Jersey’s flurry was somewhat reminiscent of how the Devils started Game 1, when they unleashed 26 shots on Theodore in the opening 20 minutes.

Brodeur kept the Devils within a goal with 6:02 left, sprawling to his side to stop Scottie Upshall’s point-blank tip attempt. Theodore was up to the task as well, denying both Kovalchuk and Zach Parise from in close in the final minutes.

Brodeur made it to the bench with 1:15 left, and Zach Parise had a shot to tie it from the right circle with about 25 seconds remaining. Theodore knocked it aside, the Panthers eventually iced the puck with 7.6 seconds left, and Fleischmann scored to start a celebration 15 years in the making.

New Jersey managed to get only four shots to Theodore in the opening 20 minutes of Game 2 — and the Devils were actually leading in that department heading into the first intermission. Shots were 4-3 at that point.

But Florida only needed one to get going, one that Weiss had been waiting on for more than a decade.

Devils defenceman Andy Greene tripped Goc on the first shift of the game, setting up a power play that Florida quickly converted. Mikael Samuelsson’s shot from the point bounced off bodies in front and made its way to Weiss, who lifted the rebound by Brodeur for a 1-0 lead just 23 seconds into the game.

The opening seconds of the first period were a turning point. So were the final seconds.

Florida got a 5-on-3 with 17 seconds left in the first after David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky tangled with Panthers defenceman Erik Gudbrandson in the corner. Clarkson was whistled for charging, Ponikarovsky for high-sticking, and Gudbrandson wound up with a scrape under his right eye — well worth it, as it turned out.

With the two-man advantage winding down, Jason Garrison’s shot appeared to deflect off Goc and to Weiss, who easily tapped the puck from the right circle past Brodeur for a 2-0 Florida lead at 1:12 of the second. Goc made it 3-0 at 14:39 after his shot made it through a maze of bodies around Brodeur, and the Panthers’ speed kept New Jersey from getting much of anything going at the other end.

The Devils got off 13 shots against Theodore in the first 6:31 of Game 1. They had 13 shots after 40 minutes of Game 2.

NOTES: Game 5 will be Saturday night at Florida. … Weiss’ only other two-power-play-goal night of his career came Nov. 1, 2005 at Montreal. … Samuelsson went to the Panthers’ dressing room early in the second period after being called for hooking against Parise. Samuelsson appeared to get his skates caught in the boards, and as he spun himself free his stick connected with the face of the Devils’ captain. … Through two periods, the teams were getting nearly three times as many hits in as shots — 75 hits against 27 combined shots, according to the Panthers.

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