SUNRISE, Fla. — Stephen Weiss waited 10 years. The Florida Panthers waited 15 years.
Fast start, frantic finish — and finally, a moment to savor.
Weiss scored the first two playoff goals of his career, Jose Theodore stopped 23 shots and the Panthers got their first playoff victory since April 17, 1997, topping the New Jersey Devils 4-2 on Sunday night to even the first-round series at a game apiece.
Clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Panthers lost a faceoff with 7.6 seconds left, New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk had a chance to tie that was blocked, and Tomas Fleischmann scored 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.
“I was freaking out,” Weiss said about those last desperate moments. “You can say scary. I was freaking out. That’s the wrong guy you want to be shooting with 7 seconds left. But sometimes your buddies have to bail you out.”
It took a couple minutes for referees to decide if the final score was 3-2 or 4-2, as they reviewed to see if Fleischmann’s goal counted.
To the Panthers, it simply didn’t matter. At long last, they were playoff winners.
“Over the course of the season we’ve been able to kind of balance things out,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “And I think that’s what happened tonight.”
Marcel Goc had a goal and an assist for the Panthers, who led 3-0 entering the third period, then saw the game change in a flash. Travis Zajac and Kovalchuk scored in the first 2:02 of the third, but the Devils got no closer.
Martin Brodeur made 20 saves for New Jersey, losing for the first time in six career postseason starts against the Panthers.
“It’s important to stay composed,” Brodeur said. “I think it’s easy to get frustrated and not be happy about the situation because we had a chance to go up 2-0 in the series. But at the end of the day, you go on the road, you should be happy to split the series. You should be happy that we came back in the game and made it really interesting for them late in the game and we have to build off that.”
Game 3 in the Eastern Conference series is Tuesday night in New Jersey.
It was the Panthers’ first playoff win in 5,478 days, since topping the New York Rangers 3-0.
Of course, a streak like that wasn’t going to end easily.
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.
“Special teams were the difference in the first two periods,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “They got two power play goals, put us in a hole. I thought they were the hungrier team the first two periods. You can’t play 20 minutes in the playoffs and expect to win.”
Well, they came close.
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, but the Panthers’ defense found a way to survive.
“No question, we had a chance,” Henrique said.
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 defenseman 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.
“I don’t know if we were bad or they were good,” Kovalchuk said. “But it’s all behind us.”
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 defenseman Erik Gudbrandson in the corner. Clarkson was whistled for charging, Ponikarovsky for high-sticking, and it was costly.
“No comment,” DeBoer said.
With the two-man advantage winding down, Jason Garrison’s shot appeared to deflect off Goc and to Weiss, who tapped the puck past Brodeur for a 2-0 Florida lead at 1:12 of the second. Goc made it 3-0 with 5:21 left in the period when his shot made it through a maze of bodies around Brodeur.
“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.”
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.