The story of the night was supposed to be the return of former Panthers head coach Peter DeBoer to South Florida. Kevin Dineen didn't seem to care, and neither did the rest of the Panthers, as they fought back from a 3-0 first period deficit to win 4-3 in regulation and send DeBoer home with a loss. The Panthers top line was at it again, scoring all four goals including two by Kris Versteeg. Despite a ten minute stretch in the first where New Jersey piled up the goals, Florida controlled much of the pace of play in this game and really earned the two points, keeping them in the lead in the Southeast and, much to everyone's surprise, putting them at second overall in the Eastern Conference.
Florida clearly was energized by the win against Pittsburgh in the previous game, and wanted to show the home crowd a great effort, so they came out swinging in the opening minutes, nearly scoring in the first minute of the game. Shawn Matthias earned Florida an early powerplay as well after leveling Anton Volchenkov with a clean hit down in the offensive corner; Volchenkov left the game injured and would not return. Ilya Kovalchuk immediately retaliated against Matty and earned a roughing call. The Devils came into this game with the best penalty kill in the NHL, but it wouldn't help them during a 5-on-3, as Bryce Salvador was called for interference with about 45 seconds left on the first penalty. The Devils fought off the first penalty, and despite some good shots by Florida, they managed to kill off the second as well. Florida really needs to get some more success in 5-on-3's; those need to become automatic at this point with the skill on each PP line. Not long after the Panthers failed to score on the powerplay, the Devils retaliated on a rush, with Kovalchuk knocking in a rebound to put the Devils up by one. Less than two minutes later, the Devils scored again, with Matthias failing to get the puck out of the zone, having it stolen by Petr Sykora. Rookie Adam Larsson would then throw it from the point and Sykora would put the puck in while standing alone in front. Couldn't get any worse than an early two-goal deficit right? Wrong. Dainus Zubrus would pop in a third shortly after off a 2-on-1, putting the Panthers in a huge hole with over seven minutes left in the first period. New Jersey continued to dominate the play in the first, getting chance after chance on Jose Theodore. Florida managed to hold down the fort for the rest of the period though, and slumped into the dressing room down 3-0.
The period started slow with the teams trading perimeter chances, until a fight broke out with Matthias and Rod Pelley, with neither really getting the nod. Stephen Weiss took an early hooking call in the offensive to put Florida on their first penalty kill of the game. No question Dineen was upset with this; offensive zone penalties are always a killer. Luckily for the Cats, they were able to kill it off, and shortly after Versteeg scored off a scramble in front after Dmitry Kulikov did a great job walking the puck out in front. The goal seemed to wake up the Panthers and they started assaulting Martin Brodeur with pressure, going to the net and nearly converting a few more chances. Florida again scored off a turnover by the Devils, with Versteeg getting his second of the game, tipping in his own rebound after Jason Garrison blasted it from the point. Versteeg is turning into the finisher Florida has missed for a long time and it's going to be really hard to not reward him with a new deal after the season. The Cats kept up the pressure after surviving a short Devils attack, and managed to draw another penalty, getting Andy Greene for a hooking call. The Panthers again had trouble setting up due to the always-amazing stickwork of Brodeur, and DeBoer's club had no issues killing off the rest of the penalty. That didn't slow down Florida though, as they kept throwing it on net and crashing the crease, constantly forcing the Devils back into their own end and testing Brodeur repeatedly. New Jersey survived though, and went into the intermission barely protecting a 3-2 lead.
Florida kept on the pressure throughout the start of the third period, but New Jersey responded with some pressure of their own, as Adam Henrique hit the post early in the period, but the Devils couldn't convert. Florida got the first powerplay of the period, but Tomas Fleischmann took a holding call during the penalty, creating a four-on-four situation. That wouldn't last though as Jack Skille took an interference penalty, giving the Devils a 4-on-3 advantage. For the Panthers of old, this was a bit of a death knell, but not this year's team, who seem to thrive in adverse situations like this. Mike Weaver made a fantastic shot block, and the puck deflected to Weiss, who carried it up ice with Garrison. Weiss then cut to the net hard and Garrison hit him with a perfect saucer pass, and Weiss made no mistake, roofing it over Brodeur to tie it up at three with a shorthanded goal. Unfortunately after that, Florida had to kill of a 5-on-3, but thanks to great individual efforts by human brick wall Weaver, the Cats killed it off, and several minutes later Florida went back on the powerplay after another delay of game penalty by New Jersey. Despite some bombs from Garrison off the point, the Devils again killed off the penalty to preserve the tie. After that, it was the Tomas Fleischmann show, as he had several great individual efforts, but one stood out, as he took a Weiss feed from the corner and deked the pads off Brodeur, potting the game winner with about two minutes left. Florida killed off the rest of the time and celebrated their most dramatic win of the season.
- How about that top line? Is there a better line in the league right now? I know, you can't believe you're reading that, and I can't believe I'm typing it, but numbers don't lie: Versteeg now has 25 points, Weiss has 21, and Butters has 20. That line has compiled 66 points in 20 games, which puts them near the top of the NHL. They are no joke.
- With all the scoring the top line has done for Florida, the secondary lines have done very little, and it's continuing to be a growing concern. Perhaps the lines need to be kept the same, as Dineen has been juggling them a bit so far this season, or perhaps injuries have attributed to the slow scoring pace. Still, it's a real issue and it needs to be addressed very soon.
- The Devils looked fast and dangerous through the first period. Florida seemed to have trouble with their speed and aggressive forecheck. The Cats got a lot of bad bounces in the first, which didn't help their case, but you gotta hand it to New Jersey for bringing their A game in the opening frame.
- Keaton Ellerby is earning his ice time. It sucks seeing Erik Gudbranson sitting in the press box most games, but Ellerby's playing well and used his body a lot in this game to separate opponents from the puck. You could knock him a little for the Devils second goal though, as he and Ed Jovanovski let Sykora alone in front.
- Florida had a ton of perimeter shots early in this game and seemed to have trouble generating much in the slot and around the net, especially the second through fourth lines. The coaching staff adjusted the gameplan a bit during the first intermission though, and you could see the result on the ice through the rest of the game.
- Mike Weaver, take a bow. Your play on the penalty kill in this game was the stuff of legend. Ice those bruises and know that you had as much a part in this win as the goal scorers.
- The Cats were sloppy around their own net at times, especially Jovanovski. There were a few chances where Florida should have again gone high off the glass and instead went low off the boards or up the middle. No more bush league clears boys; just get it out.
- Michael Repik looks pretty good so far. It's very beneficial for guys like Repik and Evgenii Dadonov to not have a coach with a big nerf bat standing behind them, waiting to BAP! them over the head whenever they make the littest mistake. Repik has a lot of offensive talent and speed and has shown it in his brief time in the NHL, but he was a bit of a defensive liability last season. Clearly he learned a bit though, as he hasn't been so far and has been a complete player so far in his time with the big club this season. He'll get his first tally of the season very soon if he keeps it up.
- Dadonov looked good again as well, nearly scoring on a breakaway in the first and just missing again on a rebound chance in the second. His compete level is apparent on all areas of the ice and he hasn't made many mistakes so far. Despite the experience and the salary, he's been an upgrade over Scottie Upshall to this point and, dare I draw some fire for this, may replace Upshall in the long run. Dadonov has the talent to be a finisher.
- Larsson, the fourth overall pick in the NHL draft this past summer, looks good for New Jersey already. He was a very wise pick by Lou Lamoriello and staff as the Devils had a big need for a solid and very intelligent puck-moving defenseman and he's filled the role admirably despite being only 19 years of age.
- Skille's penalty in the third was a little ill-advised, but you can't help but notice the Tony Award-winning performance by Kovalchuk on the play, especially considering he was right back out on the ice on the Devils subsequent powerplay. Next up for Kovy: The Book of Mormon, maybe Wicked?
- That game-winner by Butters was pretty. MudPitChicks.com pretty.
- Last but not least, kudos to Theo for another quiet yet winning performance. He was once again there when it counted for this team and is proving he may actually have more left in the tank than Tomas Vokoun.
Ready for another game? Yea, me too. The Panthers dance with the New York Rangers this Wednesday at home, hoping to get a winning streak going that lasts more than two games. Few teams have been as hot as the Rags over the last couple of weeks, and so this one is shaping up to be a great tilt. Hopefully Florida can outplay the Rangers, as I enjoy seeing John Tortorella lose his friggin mind behind the bench.