SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Kris Versteeg scored a goal and set up another, Jose Theodore made 30 saves for his second postseason shutout, and the Florida Panthers moved a win away from their first series win in 16 years with a 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.
Scottie Upshall also scored for Florida, which leads the Eastern Conference first-round series 3-2. The Panthers’ last series victory came in the 1996 East finals, and they’ll have two chances to snap that drought.
Tomas Kopecky was credited with an empty-net goal with 34 seconds left, after Ilya Kovalchuk impeded his clear path to the net.
Martin Brodeur made 30 saves for New Jersey, which hosts a win-or-else Game 6 on Tuesday night. If necessary, Game 7 is at Florida on Thursday night.
Clinging to a one-goal lead for more than half the game, Florida had plenty of chances for the insurance score. It came with 6:43 left — and was earned.
With the sellout crowd already roaring as Upshall and Shawn Matthias battled to fight the puck up the boards and eventually clear it into the New Jersey zone, Brodeur skated around his net to make a play. On a forecheck, Versteeg beat Brodeur to the puck, sending it in front for Upshall, who had empty net to shoot at and give Florida a 2-0 lead.
From there, red towels waved, people stomping and clapping in unison, a scene that South Florida hadn’t seen much of in well over a decade.
Theodore and Panthers gave them plenty to enjoy.
He simply shut the door, and when Brodeur got to the bench with 2:14 left and the Devils down by two, Theodore never got rattled, either. New Jersey had a 6-on-4 when Erik Gudbranson was called for roughing with 2:08 left, but never solved Theodore.
The Devils had the best penalty-killing percentage in the NHL’s modern era this season, thwarting power plays 89.6 percent of the time. But in the series, Florida has thrived when it has the extra skater on the ice.
And the trend continued.
On a play that started with a faceoff win — another Florida strength over large stretches of this series — Stephen Weiss got the puck between the circles, then sent a sharp pass to the left corner of the rink to Versteeg, who fired a one-timer by Brodeur for a 1-0 lead at exactly 4:00 of the second period.
It was Florida’s first goal in nearly two full games, a span of 117 minutes, 26 seconds.
Not only that, but the Panthers were again doing their best work against what was supposed to be the Devils’ strength. Teams had gone 7 for 77 against New Jersey to close the regular season. After Versteeg’s goal, the Panthers were 7 for 17 in the series with the man advantage.
From there, the Devils’ penalty kill was as airtight as it was all season.
A double-minor assessed to Dainius Zubrus for high-sticking Gudbranson was killed off late in the second, and Florida was a man-up again for the first 1:09 of the third, still unable to get the insurance goal.
When the breakthrough came late in the third, Theodore did the rest.
Though he didn’t blame Scott Clemmensen for the 4-0 loss at New Jersey on Thursday night, it was little surprise that Panthers coach Kevin Dineen went back with Theodore — the No. 1 goalie option in Florida this season — for Game 5.
If anyone wondered if Theodore was up to the task, he tried to provide the answer in the early going.
Shots were 11-11 after the first period, though the Devils had some great chances that Theodore denied, sometimes making spectacular look easy.
Patrik Elias had a chance to stuff in the rebound of his own blocked shot with 7:20 left in the opening period, only to have Theodore kick it aside. Two minutes later, Travis Zajac tried to score from down low, with Theodore again holding his ground. And with Florida caught in a change with 4 minutes left, Stephen Gionta had a clear shot from the top of the right circle, which Theodore smothered.
That set the trend for the night, and ensured that Florida’s home crowd will see at least one more game this season.
NOTES: Theodore’s only other playoff shutout was April 19, 2004, 2-0 for Montreal at Boston. … The teams combined for one shot in the first 6 1/2 minutes. … Florida has outscored New Jersey 7-1 in second periods of the series. … With defensemen Jason Garrison and Keaton Ellerby out with injuries, the Panthers called up D Tyson Strachan from San Antonio of the AHL for the game.
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