SUNRISE, Fla. — Devils coach Peter DeBoer appeared on his way to a victory in his return to South Florida, but a record comeback by his former team spoiled his night.
Tomas Fleischmann scored his team's fourth with 2:03 left in the third period as the Florida Panthers rallied from a 3-0 first-period deficit to beat New Jersey 4-3 Monday night.
It was the first time in franchise history the Panthers had rallied from three goals down to win in regulation. The only other time the Panthers won after trailing by three came on Feb. 10, 2009, when they rallied from a 4-1 third-period deficit to win 5-4 in overtime against Toronto.
"It's got nothing to do with him at all," Panthers center Stephen Weiss said of beating his former coach. "It was unacceptable the way we started that game. We had to push back, and we did. It's a big win for us."
DeBoer, who was fired by the Panthers last April after three seasons in charge, was facing his former team for the first time. He admitted beforehand it was an important game for him.
"It's disappointing," DeBoer said. "We stopped playing after the 3-0 lead. A good lesson learned and a credit to them. They didn't stop. We probably got what we deserved at the end."
Kris Versteeg scored twice for Florida, who won at home for the second game in a row after going almost a month without a home victory.
The comeback began in the second period with Versteeg's two goals, both from close range. The first came when he grabbed a loose puck that had bounced off a couple of skates, the second on a rebound. Despite his opportunist scores, Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said Versteeg's mere presence was danger enough.
"I think Versteeg took over the game," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. "Even though he got two goals on rebounds, puck possession, I don't know how many minutes he had the puck in our zone, but it was pretty impressive the way he played."
The two goals gave Versteeg 11 in 20 games, meaning he is now halfway to matching his career high of 22 set with Chicago in 2008-09.
Jose Theodore made 22 saves and he improved his career record against New Jersey to 8-14-2.
"I don't know if fatigue's a factor. I don't want to use that as a crutch," DeBoer said. "We just have to find a way to close out games. It's early - you hate to lose the points."
Brodeur stopped 32 shots as his career record against Florida fell to a still-respectable 36-15-8. Brodeur also had an assist on Zubrus' goal. It was the 38th of his career, the most of any active goalie.
New Jersey defenseman Anton Volchenkov left the game with an apparent head injury at 2:28 of the first period after taking a high check from Florida forward Shawn Matthias.
Kovalchuk drew a roughing penalty when he shoved Matthias to the ice after the whistle following the hit, and Rod Pelley fought with Matthias early in the second period.
DeBoer said after the game that Volchenkov needed 12 stitches in his face.
Fleischmann scored the game-winner when he took a pass from Weiss in the slot, held on to the puck and fired over a sprawled Brodeur.
"I didn't think he was very good tonight," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said of Fleischmann. "I thought he was trying to jump into spots late, but he has an incredible ability to find moments, and he certainly provided a big one for us tonight."
New Jersey took its 3-0 lead when Kovalchuk, Sykora and Zubrus scored in a span of 3:32 in the first period.
Kovalchuk and Sykora both scored off rebounds, while Zubrus one-timed a pretty cross-ice pass from Patrick Elias from near the boards.
The Devils came into the game with only eight first-period goals all season.
"We thought in the first period we were in control besides that three-minute gap where we had a couple of bad bounces," Versteeg said. "When you give skilled players like (Patrick) Elias and Kovalchuk [chances], they're going to put it in the back of the net. But we found a way to win. We're going to have to be happy about that tonight and just let the game go and come back on an even keel tomorrow."
Weiss tied the game at 9:12 of the third period with a beautiful short-handed goal. With Florida on a 4-on-3 disadvantage, Weiss took a beautiful saucer pass from Garrison to come in alone on Brodeur and beat the goalie with a wrist shot high on the glove side.
Weiss said he and his teammates always believed they could come back.
"It's always realistic with the group we have," he said. "We've done it before. We've come back. Just because you're down two or three goals doesn't mean the game is over. There was 50 minutes left to go in that hockey game and we just stuck with the plan, stopped turning the puck over. That was the key. We started to wear their D down and eventually just took over."
1 - 0 NJD
2 - 0 NJD
3 - 0 NJD
3 - 1 NJD
3 - 2 NJD
3 - 3 Tie