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Devils 3, Panthers 0

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Patrik Elias' presence alone would have given the New Jersey Devils a lift after he'd missed several months with an illness. The high-scoring left winger made sure his long-awaited debut also resulted in a win.

Elias assisted on one of Brian Gionta's two goals to help the Devils defeat the Florida Panthers 3-0 Tuesday night. It was a welcome homecoming for the player who had led New Jersey in scoring in each of the last five seasons but contracted hepatitis A last spring while playing in Europe during the NHL lockout.

Devils interim coach Lou Lamoriello put Elias on the first line with Gionta and Scott Gomez, and he received a loud ovation when he took the ice to start the game.

"It felt good, no question," a tired but happy Elias said after the game. "I'm glad to be back. If the fans are excited, that's even better."

Elias gave the Devils a much-needed shot in the arm after a stretch in which they lost 11 of 14 games and were outscored 12-5 in their last two defeats to Toronto and Pittsburgh. He was on the ice for both of Gionta's goals, and had a chance for a goal of his own late in the game but was stopped on a breakaway by Roberto Luongo.

Considering he hadn't played for eight months, Elias looked surprisingly in synch with Gionta and Gomez, who have carried the Devils this season in his absence. Gionta leads the team in scoring with 23 goals after Tuesday, and Gomez is second.

"It helps that they're going well," Elias said. "We were making good plays, spreading the ice pretty well. I didn't want to hold back. I told the coaches that when I come back I want to play, I don't just want to go out there and play a couple of shifts and try to work into it."

Against a Florida team that had won three straight games and seven of its last 10, the Devils played a complete game in front of goaltender Martin Brodeur, who made 16 saves and earned his first shutout of the season.

They killed three penalties, including a 5-on-3 late in the second period, and created several good opportunities on the power play though they failed to score in three chances.

"I thought all the lines did the little things that had to be done," said Lamoriello. "Turnovers were minimal. Our power play moved the puck and had great chances. That's all you want.

Some good work by Elias led to Gionta's second goal midway through the second period. Gomez flipped a cross-ice pass to the left wing that was tipped into the corner behind Luongo, but Elias outskated Florida's Sean Hill to the puck and fed Gionta at the near post for the tap-in.

In the first period, Gionta took a pass from Gomez from behind the net and snapped a one-timer past Luongo from between the circles.

Florida, meanwhile, managed just two shots in the third period and never seemed to get untracked.

"We made a lot of progress in the last two weeks," said winger Martin Gelinas. "But we're not in a position to take it easy. We've been successful because we've done the little things. Tonight we weren't sharp."

Notes: With assists on Gionta's two goals, Gomez set a Devils record by having a hand in eight consecutive goals. During the stretch, which extended back to the final goal of a 7-2 Devils win over Washington on Dec. 28, Gomez had five goals and three assists ... The shutout was the 76th of Brodeur's career ... To make room for Elias, Alexander Mogilny was a healthy scratch for New Jersey ... The game marked the fourth time the Panthers have been shut out this season. The Devils have been shut out once ... New Jersey is 3-0 against Florida this season.

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