I have a feeling that many hockey fans (and some media) just watched the first period of game one of the Panthers/Devils series and dismissed it entirely. The Devils had a whopping 26 shots in that period, as many as the Panthers had all game. They took a 3-0 lead in the first period and it was all they needed, as they held off the Panthers for the 3-2 win.
What they might have missed, however, is that the Panthers came just short of tying that game, then flipped the script in game two, taking a 3-0 lead of their own into the third period, then holding on for a 4-2 victory with an empty net insurance marker. Then came game three, which is when things got crazy.
The Devils jumped out to yet another 3-0 lead, this time doing so in the first six minutes of the first period. Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore understandably got pulled after allowing 3 goals on 6 shots and was replaced by former Devils’ backup Scott Clemmensen, who proceeded to stonewall his former team the rest of the game.
This time, the Panthers completed the comeback, chasing Martin Brodeur from the New Jersey net with three goals of their own, then welcoming backup Johan Hedberg to the game with the eventual gamewinning goal just a few minutes later. The last time that Brodeur was pulled in the playoffs was in 2006 against the Carolina Hurricanes in a 6-0 loss. His replacement? Scott Clemmensen.
Do you want a series where no lead is safe? Do you want playoff hockey that is physical without the cheap shots and dirty hits that have characterized so many other series? Do you want games that go down to the wire every single time? It hasn’t been perfect hockey, but it has been thoroughly entertaining.
There are no shortage of great stories in this series, not least of which is the Panthers unexpectedly going up 2-1 in the series. The Backhand Shelf staff were nearly unanimous in picking the Devils to win the series, with two picking a sweep and three more saying they would take it in 5 games: that ain’t happening (For the record, I said Devils in 7 and stand behind it).
Perennial backup Scott Clemmensen shutting out his former team in relief is huge and he’s likely to get the start for tonight’s game four. Then there’s the ancient Martin Brodeur picking up his 100th career playoff win in game one of the series, while notching an assist for his 10th career playoff point. Unfortunately, he proceeded to allow 6 goals on 35 shots over the next two games. Are we seeing the end of Martin Brodeur or can he come back strong and carry the Devils a little bit further? Will Clemmensen turn into a playoff hero and carry the underdog Panthers into the second round?
How about the special teams battle? The New Jersey Devils had the best penalty kill in the league during the regular season, but the Panthers’ powerplay has picked it apart, scoring 6 goals on 10 attempts. It’s entirely possible that the Panthers are just getting lucky – after all, they were 1-for-11 on the powerplay against the Devils during the regular season – but that has been the difference for the Panthers in their two victories. Will the Devils sort out their penalty kill and shut off the Panthers’ main source of offence?
Meanwhile, Sean Bergenheim is busy proving that his playoff success with the Lightning wasn’t a fluke, tallying 4 points in the first 3 games of the series after scoring 23 points in 62 regular season games. Mikael Samuelsson has stepped up his game as well, putting up 4 points of his own after a 31 point regular season. One of the reasons these two players were acquired is their playoff pedigree, which may drive the stat-heads bonkers, but seems to be paying early dividends in this small sample size. Will they continue to lead the Panthers past the more-talented Devils’ forwards?
I’m honestly not sure how many people outside of Florida and New Jersey are actually watching this series, considering it’s only on the NHL Network in the US and is getting the TSN 2 treatment in Canada. But if you get the opportunity, give this series a chance. At the very least, this might be Brodeur’s final opportunity at a playoff run. And it might be ended by one of the unlikeliest playoff teams in recent memory.
You should at least be cheering for one more Panthers win in Florida, so you can see another shower of rats.