SUNRISE, FLA. - A single thought came to Florida Panthers centre Stephen Weiss as the final horn sounded on Sunday night.
Where could he hide as fans pelted the BankAtlantic Center ice with hundreds of plastic rats after the Panthers’ first playoff victory in 15 years?
“I was just trying to take cover,” Weiss said with a gap-toothed grin in the Panthers’ dressing room.
“It was cool to see. It was pretty special in 1996 when that (Panthers) team went on that run (to the Stanley Cup final). It was fun to see them bring that back. I hope we can get a couple of more wins for them.”
It’s far too early to suggest that the Panthers could have another long run in store, but they served notice in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the New Jersey Devils that they’re not about to scurry off into the night.
In a 4-2 triumph in Game 2 before an announced sellout crowd of 19,248, Weiss scored his first two playoff goals and the Panthers withstood a Devils resurrection in the third period to record the franchise’s first post-season win since April 17, 1997, back when the team played at the Miami Arena.
The Panthers tied the best-of-seven series 1-1, ensuring there will be a fifth game in the Sunshine State on Saturday.
The Devils had just 13 shots through 40 minutes — this after registering 26 in the first period of Game 1 — and generated few scoring opportunities on Panthers goalie Jose Theodore. But they bit into the Panthers lead with two goals before the third period was 2 1/2 minutes old, as Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk, celebrating his 29th birthday, scored.
Despite coming close to tying the game on point-blank chances by Kovalchuk and Zajac, the Devils couldn’t score again. Tomas Fleischmann blocked a Kovalchuk shot in the final seconds and then scored into an empty net as time expired.
Marcel Goc also scored for the Panthers on Martin Brodeur, who made 20 saves. Theodore stopped 23 shots.
Weiss played in 637 regular-season games for Florida before reaching the post-season, finally, on Friday night. He opened the scoring 23 seconds into the game on a power play, and on another power play at 1:12 of the second period to stake the Panthers to a 2-0 lead.
Weiss’ first goal was set Panthers playoff records for the fastest goal to start a game and to start a period. As well, it was the fastest power-play goal since 1987, when Montreal’s Mats Naslund scored 18 seconds into a game.
“It’s worth the wait,” Weiss, a 29-year-old native of Toronto, said. “To get your first playoff goal is pretty special, especially after such a long wait.
“But that’s not what it is about. It’s about what happens at the end of the game when you get the win.”
The Devils knew the Panthers were going to start with a little more enthusiasm than in Game 1. But New Jersey ran into penalty trouble, first with defenceman Andy Greene taking a tripping penalty on Goc just 11 seconds into the game. Two minors called on the same play with 17 seconds left in the first period got the undisciplined Devils into a further hole. With a high-sticking call coming against Alexei Ponikarovsky, David Clarkson ran over Panthers defenceman Erik Gudbranson in the corner and joined Ponikarovsky in the box on a charging call. Both were watching from the box when Weiss scored his second goal, and Clarkson was not happy about it.
“It’s playoff hockey, and there are going to be hits,” Clarkson said. “They called two penalties on one play, and I have not seen that before. But that’s not the reason we lost the game. We just have to stay out of the box. I thought the third period was great for us, and we have to build off that and keep going the way we did in the third.”