Commentary

Devils execute game plan in Game 1

Updated: April 14, 2012, 2:34 AM ET
By Wes Goldstein | Special to ESPN.com

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Earlier on Friday, New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer joked about the last time he was at the Bank Atlantic Center podium, noting that it was to talk about being fired by the Florida Panthers.

Obviously his mood was better on this particular occasion, but not as good as it would be a few hours later when New Jersey roared out of the gate, then held on to defeat the Panthers 3-2 in the first game of this Eastern quarterfinals series.

DeBoer -- coaching an NHL playoff game for the first time in his career -- has seen his talented, yet often underappreciated club quietly evolve into one of the league's elite squads over the course of the season. New Jersey went 21-9-3 after the All-Star break, including six consecutive victories to end the regular season.

Yet what mattered most on this night was how the Devils carried that momentum into the start of the game. And by the time the opening period had ended, New Jersey was threatening to make this one a laugher, finishing the frame with a 3-0 lead on goals by Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus and Ryan Carter and a mind-boggling 26-9 shot advantage.

"We were ready," DeBoer said. "We had a tough week of practice and we came off a real good run to end the season, so I felt good about our game. And that's how you want to start."

No doubt. Unless of course your team is seeing its first playoff action in a dozen years, the situation the Panthers found themselves in.

With a sellout crowd of 19,119 offering the kind of vocal support not often seen around these parts, Florida took an uncharacteristically physical approach to the game's opening minutes. But rather than forcing the Devils back on their heels, the strategy seemed to backfire as the Panthers' aggressiveness created gaps in their coverage to allow for New Jersey's skilled forwards to move about the offensive zone with almost reckless abandon.

In one instance, it was Ilya Kovalchuk twisting and turning unencumbered before setting up Zach Parise for an excellent scoring chance. And in another there was Travis Zajac getting alone on Florida goalie Jose Theodore. Theodore, a controversial choice as the Game 1 starter to some, came up big on those occasions, and several others as well.

But faced with a period-long shooting gallery, the veteran netminder was unable to do much more than keep the game from getting out of hand.

"Obviously, they kept coming pretty hard," Theodore said. "Take away that first period, we played a solid game. But in the playoffs, we can't wait a period to get ready."

Certainly not when facing someone like Martin Brodeur in the other net. Brodeur was beaten in the second period by strong individual plays from Florida's Sean Bergenheim and Kris Versteeg but made several big stops in the third period when Florida went into desperation mode looking for the equalizer. Brodeur secured the 100th playoff win of his storied career with the victory.

"I think we made it a little nerve racking for a while there, but you always feel good when you know he's back there," Parise said. "The bottom line is we came in here with a game plan to pressure them, and we executed it. That's what it takes to win this time of year."