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Panthers Take 3-2 Series Lead With 3-0 Win

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers
SUNRISE, Fla. — Jose Theodore said he was inspired watching Martin Brodeur bounce back from being pulled by recording a shutout. He was so inspired, it turned out, he duplicated Brodeur's feat.

Theodore stopped 29 shots for his second career playoff shutout as the Florida Panthers beat New Jersey 3-0 to take a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.

The Panthers will try to close out their first series victory since 1996 in Game 6 Tuesday at the Prudential Center.

"We're both athletes that want to show pride and bounce back," Theodore said. "Growing up, Marty was a [role] model for me. This last game when I saw him bounce back, it was pretty inspiring. Like, well, that's what the best goalie does. He inspired me. Tonight, I was like, 'OK, I'm going to try to bounce back as well as he did.' "

Theodore, whose other playoff shutout came on April 19, 2004 for Montreal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Boston, was back in net for the first time since being pulled after only 6:16 of the first period in Game 3 Tuesday at New Jersey.

"For me, that's Theo," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "That's what I expected out of him. He gets sat a game and he comes back, that's a true professional. That's what my full expectation was, is how he played tonight."

Theodore out-dueled Brodeur, who stopped 30 shots and had to make a lot more spectacular saves.

Brodeur was coming off his record-setting 24th career playoff shutout in Game 4, two nights after being pulled after giving up three goals while Florida rallied from a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 victory.

"I just tried to give these guys a chance to win the game," Brodeur said. "I thought I did that today. I went out and I think it was one of my better games of the series as far as the timely saves I made early in the game, in the second, the four-minute power play. It's a team game. It's not a big deal, we'll bounce back next game."

Kris Versteeg scored the game-winner on the power play in the second period and had an assist on Scottie Upshall's goal with 6:43 left in the third period. Tomas Kopecky was awarded a goal with 33.9 seconds left when he was hooked from behind by Ilya Kovalchuk with an empty net in front of him.

The Panthers won in front of a sellout crowd 19,513 at the BankAtlantic Center. It was the largest in the Panthers' playoff history, breaking the mark of 19,248 set in Game 2 last Sunday.

"We battled really hard tonight," Versteeg said. “Obviously, we knew they were a team that's going to battle as well. It was a hard-fought win and we played well. It's the way we wanted to play the game."

The Panthers didn't put the game away until late in the third period when they took advantage of a rare mistake by Brodeur trying to play the puck.

With the Panthers nursing a 1-0 lead, Upshall dumped the puck in the Devils' zone. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky came back to play the puck and Brodeur got out of his net and skated to the end board.

Versteeg beat both Zidlicky and Brodeur to the puck, and backhanded a pass to the front of the net to Upshall, who merely had to put the puck in the open net.

"I just went to play the puck in the trapezoid and the puck was slowing down and it started bobbling," Brodeur said. "I had position on him and he just came in out of nowhere and kind of batted it out. A little bit unlucky there."

The goal came after Florida won battles at its own blue line, at center ice and at the New Jersey blue line.

But it was Versteeg who made the play.

"It was a second, third effort," Upshall said. "That's what it takes this time of year. Steeger made a great play. To strip a puck from Marty Brodeur is not the easiest thing. He handles it like Pavel Datsyuk out there. That was a nice play, well set up, just an easy tap-in."

Versteeg scored the seventh power-play goal of the series for the Panthers, who have only three goals at even strength along with one empty-netter.

Versteeg scored at 4:00 on Florida's first power play of the game.

With Zidlicky in the box for interference, Versteeg took Stephen Weiss' feed from the high slot and scored on a one-timer as he stood near the bottom of the left circle.

"You step out there and you try to get open," Versteeg said. "These guys, they close off so many lanes and they get their sticks on everything, but it was a great play by Weisser to find me for sure."

Florida had a couple of great chances right before the goal, but Brodeur stopped John Madden's wrist shot on a 2-on-1 and then slid across the crease to stop Sean Bergenheim's redirect on another 2-on-1.

The Panthers had a great opportunity to increase their lead when Dainius Zubrus was assessed a double-minor after clipping defenseman Erik Gudbranson with a high stick.

Florida managed three shots on goal during the four-minute power play, the best scoring chance coming when Tomas Fleischmann fired a wrist shot on a 2-on-1 rush.

The Panthers came close to adding to the lead early in the third period on another power play. Brian Campbell's pass from behind the net hit a skate in front and bounced off the right post.

Florida ended up 1-for-6 on the power play.

"We had too many penalties," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "When we've done that this series, we've gotten ourselves in trouble. You overplay your big guys, fatigue sets in, that's what happened tonight."

For the second consecutive game in the series, the teams played a scoreless first period.

There wasn't a lot of offense in the early going, with the teams combining for only one shot in the first six minutes.

Florida's first shot of the game came at the 6:31 mark and might have been the Panthers' best scoring opportunity of the period. Bergenheim found himself alone on Brodeur after getting behind the defense and  taking a pass from Mikael Samuelsson, but the puck was rolling and Brodeur dove to the ice to smother Bergenheim's close-in shot.

The Devils had the only power-play opportunity of the first period and, even though the shots were even at 11-11, they had the most scoring chances.

Theodore came up with big saves on Patrik Elias' rebound from the side of the net with under eight minutes left in the period and later stopped Travis Zajac's redirection from the front of the net with 5:15 left.

New Jersey also had a couple of good scoring chances in the first two minutes of the second period, but Theodore came up with big saves against Zajac and Adam Henrique.

The Devils didn't muster much the rest of the period, though, recording only two shots in the last 18 minutes and none in the last 9:28.

Captain Zach Parise said the shutout was more a result of the Devils' problems than Theodore's work.

"We didn't compete hard enough," Parise said. "We lost a lot of one-on-one pucks that we were winning in the last game and we didn't do that tonight.

"As far as [Theodore is] concerned, we didn't challenge him enough. He got real lucky on a lot of them. A lot. [Ilya Kovalchuk] going through his legs, it went wide. I got my stick on a couple that just trickled wide. We got a lot of those types, but we can make it tougher."
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