SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers came painfully, agonizingly close to winning their first playoff series since 1996, and in their solemn and quiet dressing room they could only look back with some pride at a great comeback that came up just short.
"A lot of character in this room," center Shawn Matthias said after a 3-2 double-overtime loss to New Jersey in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. "We showed that all series. There's a lot of games we came back and battled hard. In the end, proud of all the guys in here, a great group, and proud to be a part of this team, but really wanted that one."
Down 2-0 after two periods against New Jersey on Thursday night, the Panthers drew even with a pair of power-play goals, including Marcel Goc's game-tying tally with 3:28 left in regulation.
But the Panthers' dream season, which included the first playoff berth in 12 years and the first division title in franchise history, came to an abrupt and devastating end when Adam Henrique scored at 3:47 of the second overtime.
"That's what we've done all year," said center Stephen Weiss, who finally got to experience the playoffs this year for the first time after 637 regular-season games. "We battled back. It wasn't the prettiest start to the hockey game that we wanted, but we hung in there, drew some penalties, found a way to get back in the hockey game. It would have been nice to keep the momentum going and follow it up with a third one, but they got it first."
As they had in four of the first six games of the series, the Panthers found themselves playing from behind Thursday. There actually was little reason to think they could come back after a second period during which they managed only two shots.
But the Panthers responded by firing 19 shots at Martin Brodeur in the third period. That total easily was Florida's highest of the series for any period, beating the previous high of 12 in the second period of Game 5.
The 19 shots also were three more than the Panthers' total for all of Game 6.
"[What] I felt, as I have so many times this year, is our team proves their resiliency by the way that there's not a lot of give-up," first-year coach Kevin Dineen said. "We have a lot of belief in ourselves. We have to get a little more stability at the beginning of our game and stick with the formula that works and be the ones applying the pressure instead of receiving it, which was fairly obvious in the first period. Once we got that strengthened, it was obvious that it was an even series, even game, even in overtime it comes down to bounces, and that was the difference in the game."
To get something going offensively in the third period, Dineen juggled his lines. Scottie Upshall moved from the third line to replace Tomas Fleischmann on the top line with Weiss and Kris Versteeg. Fleischmann joined Tomas Kopecky and Matthias on another line.
But the scoring, as it did for most of the series for the Panthers, came courtesy of the power play.
Florida went 2-for-4 with the man advantage to end the series at 9-for-27. The 33.3 success rate was more than three times better than what opponents managed against New Jersey during the regular season when the Devils set a modern-era record by killing off 89.6 percent of opposition power plays while allowing just 27 goals.
"We knew that was going to have to be good for us to compete in this series," said Weiss, who scored his third power-play goal of the series at 5:02 of the third period to make it 2-1. "When we had chances, we had to capitalize and we did that tonight. We get one with three minutes left and Gotchie's line goes out and gets a big goal to tie it up. We just had to continue to keep battling and try to get one in the overtime obviously, but it wasn't to be."
Florida's comeback was even more impressive considering it came after the Panthers had an apparent goal disallowed at 1:50 of the third period.
Fleischmann put the puck in the net after Brodeur stopped Mike Weaver's shot from the point, but the goal was disallowed because Matthias was penalized for goaltender interference on the play.
Matthias said the only reason he crashed into Brodeur was because he was pushed from behind by a Devils defender.
"I don't know how I got a penalty out of that," Matthias said. "But I haven't seen it. We still came back and tied it up, so you can't be too upset about that goal not being allowed. Who knows? It's hockey. You've got to forget about those plays. But you have to remember this feeling right here."
That feeling was one of disappointment for Matthias and his teammates.
But they also had every right to feel proud of their never-say-die attitude.
"We saw a little bit of the true identity of the Panthers and what we call Panthers hockey toward the end," Dineen said. "It was a lot of pressure. To get in the intangible part, there was a lot of passion and emotion and we fed off the crowd. It made for a very enthusiastic evening that didn't end well."
Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent