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Panthers get 1st playoff win since '97, top NJ 4-2

Associated Press Modified: April 15, 2012 at 10:16 pm •  Published: April 15, 2012
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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — 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."

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