|The New Jersey Devils celebrate winning game 7 to eliminate the Florida Panthers on Thursday in Sunrise, Fla. (Getty)|
By Dennis Dodd
SUNRISE, Fla. – Let's try to portray how bad it was for the Florida Panthers. They had done more than their share than to make this the most gentlemanly series of the first round.
They trailed New Jersey 2-0 Thursday in the third period of a Game 7 in their building, emerging with barely a whimper with everything on the line. The biggest hit of the series had been Panther-on-Panther. John Madden and Tomas Kopecky inadvertently crashed head-on into each other in the neutral zone in the first period. Madden literally crawled to the bench, blood spewing from his face.
The BankAtlantic Center crowd had enough, booing the Panthers off the ice after they managed only two shots in the second period.
You know it's a bad night when the number of warnings about throwing plastic rodents on the ice outnumber outnumbers the home team's goals.
Call New Jersey's 3-2 two-overtime win in Game 7 Thursday, then, example No. 5,809 of how quickly things can turn in the playoffs. Something went off deep in that uninspired soul of the Panthers. They scored two goals against the league's best penalty-killing unit in the third period giving them nine for the series.
The most gentlemanly series of the first round provided one of the best spectacles in sports – a Game 7 overtime. But the spectacle will be remembered best by Henrique, who beat Florida's Jose Theodore through the legs in that second overtime.
Gone were all the sins of the third period and the bad memories of the last five years. The Devils won their first playoff series since 2007. Meanwhile, for the Panthers Friday will dawn as the 5,809th day since the franchise has won a series.
Henrique, the 82nd pick of the 2006 draft, blossomed this season with 51 points and getting Calder Trophy buzz. On Thursday, his first two career playoff goals came in only 21 minutes of ice time. Gionta is the 5-foot-7 brother of Montreal veteran Brian who tweeted out some sibling love during the game.
Who's to say these undistinguished Devils can't make it a series against the Flyers in the next round? Philadelphia has more firepower, more brawn, more talent. But Jersey is on a roll. Five days ago, it was down 3-2 but rallied to win the final two games in overtime. The Devils have Marty Brodeur, and as long as they have him they've got a chance. The future hall of famer stopped 43 shots Thursday, reverting to his usual form after those two third-period power play goals.
New Jersey most likely won't get away being so gentlemanly in the next round. But strange heroes come from strange places this time of year.
South Florida was on fire momentarily for hockey this season. Why can't New Jersey – this league of extraordinary gentlemen – become a Cup contender again?