Panthers stage their greatest playoff comeback

Florida 4 New Jersey 3 NEWARK, N.J. — Two days after ending a 15-year playoff drought, the Florida Panthers staged their greatest post-season comeback, knocked out an old nemesis and seemingly found themselves a new goaltender.

New Jersey Devils' Johan Hedberg (1)

New Jersey Devils' Johan Hedberg (1)

Florida 4 New Jersey 3

NEWARK, N.J. — Two days after ending a 15-year playoff drought, the Florida Panthers staged their greatest post-season comeback, knocked out an old nemesis and seemingly found themselves a new goaltender.

Brian Campbell scored on a second-period power play and the Panthers rallied from an early three-goal deficit to defeat the New Jersey Devils 4-3 on Tuesday night behind a 19-save performance in relief by Scott Clemmensen over the final 54 minutes.

Not only did the Panthers take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference, first-round series, they did it by sending Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur to the bench after only 22 minutes.

“The story of this series has been the momentum swings,” Clemmensen said after making only his second career playoff appearance and posting his first win. “We’re only three games in, but we’ve seen three goals up, three goals down. For us, we’ve proven we can come back from three goals down. They have proven to us that they can come back.

“It’s a matter of perseverance for us and the unity in this room.”

Sean Bergenheim, Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver also scored for the Panthers, who had never rallied from more than a one-goal deficit in their post-season history, with the last one coming in a 4-3 win against Pittsburgh on May 30, 1996.

“That’s not going to happen again,” Campbell said. “We can’t rely on that. We have to have good special teams and we want to win that battle. We can’t put ourselves in those holes and expect to get back into it using the power play.”

The power play is the main reason the Panthers are ahead as the series turns toward Game 4 here on Thursday. They converted on all three of power plays against the league’s top-ranked penalty kill unit, and are now 6 of 10 in the series with the man advantage.

“I think we definitely got overexcited about that three-goal lead and let them back in the game being a little undisciplined, and they got some goals off their power play,” said Brodeur, who was a little miffed being lifted in the second period with the game tied.

Devils coach Peter DeBoer said he took Brodeur out to give the team a lift, adding the Panthers seemed to pick it up after Clemmensen replaced Theodore. The latter allowed three goals on six shots in 6:16.

It didn’t work for New Jersey, although DeBoer said Brodeur will start on Thursday.

Expect Clemmensen, too.

“I’m not expecting to start,” said Clemmensen, whose only playoff work came in 2006 when he replaced Brodeur in a 6-0 loss to Carolina. “I think both of us (Theodore) have the qualifications to start. I’m not going to anticipate anything. I am going to be ready if it is me.”

Zach Parise, Stephen Gionta and Patrik Elias scored for the Devils, who have scored all eight of their goals in the series in just three periods. The other six frames have been a bust.

Campbell recorded the game winner on the Panthers’ third and final power play, and like most of the goals, it came on a shot from the point that got past Johan Hedberg.

“I knew I had some time and I just put it on net and hoped for the best,” Campbell said. “You can’t get too high.”

New Jersey thought it tied the game late in the second period on a Marek Zidlicky shot but it was waved off for incidental contact with Clemmensen.

DeBoer felt the call was marginal.

The Devils buzzed around the Florida net in the closing minutes but Clemmensen stopped David Clarkson on a shot from the circle with about a minute to go and Parise misfired on a shot between the circles with the net open in the closing 20 seconds.

“He was unbelievable,” Campbell said of Clemmensen. “He’s played great for us all year. That’s a strength of our team, having two solid goaltenders.”

The Panthers seemingly were out of the game until Elias took a very foolish unsportsmanlike minor for a late hit after an icing call against the Devils.

Florida was 3 of 7 with the extra man in the first two games of the series and they only got better in Game 3.

Scottie Upshall banged a long pass off the ends boards from centre ice and Bergenheim raced in, collected the puck and beat Brodeur with a perfect shot into the upper corner of the net with 3:49 left in the period to cut the deficit to 3-1.

Before the period ended, it was a one-goal game, and again the power play was the difference.

Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador was sent off for roughing with just under two minutes left in the period and Garrison beat Brodeur with a shot from about 10 feet inside the blue line.

Florida needed only 2:18 into the second period to tie the game and again Elias helped the Panthers.

Jerred Smithson deflected a clearing attempt by Elias along the left boards and the puck went cross ice to Weaver. His 40-foot shot went into the net with Upshall screening Brodeur, who was lifted after the play, ending his shortest stint in a playoff game.

The Devils had a couple of pucks slide by the goal and had one apparent tally waved off by referee Tim Peel late in the second. Steve Bernier fell into Clemmensen moments before a point shot by Zidicky hit off the goaltender and went into the net.

Peel never hesitated in waving off the goal, while at the time saying the incidental contact did not merit a penalty.

The Devils almost ran the Panthers out of the Prudential Center in the opening 6:16 of the first, scoring three times on six shots and forcing Florida coach Kevin Dineen to insert Clemmensen for a shellshocked Theodore, who was hung out to dry by his teammates.

Parise, who had failed to score in the first two games despite getting 12 shots, scored on his first shift just 33 seconds after the opening faceoff. Theodore was handcuffed on a shot from the boards by Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils captain eventually collected the loose puck and ripped a shot into an open net, igniting a roar from the sellout crowd that was barley in its seats.

Gionta, a late-season call up from Albany, stretched the advantage to two goals at 3:27, deflecting a point shot by Marek Zidlicky into the net.

The rout seemed in full gear at 6:16 when Elias scored into an open net after a scramble in front.

Little did anyone realize, the Devils would not celebrate again.

NOTES: The last time Brodeur was pulled from a playoff game was in 2006 in a 6-0 loss to Carolina. …The Devils did not have a shot for the final 12:15 of the first period. … Clemmensen had an assist on the Bergenheim goal that got the Panthers going in the first period. … The Panthers made one lineup change, scratching Wojtek Wolski and replacing him with Smithson. … The Devils allowed a league-low 27 power-play goals in the regular season.

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