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Panthers turn it up a notch

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Apparently, those just weren't just typical pregame words being drawn specifically for this occasion from the book of common athlete clich├ęs.

Then again, if it was to be expected that the Florida Panthers would say all the right things about needing a better start after an embarrassing opening-game effort, it was perhaps a bit of a surprise that would actually be able to pull it off.

And yet the Panthers managed to do precisely that. Florida jumped into the lead before the game was a half-minute old and then stifled the New Jersey Devils long enough to secure a 4-2 victory that evened this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at one game each.

More important, in gaining their first playoff victory in 15 years in their first playoff appearance since 2000, the Panthers have managed to change the dynamic of this series, at least temporarily.

"It's all square now," said Stephen Weiss, the offensive trigger for the Panthers with a pair of power-play goals. "And it's definitely nice to get that monkey off our backs. Now we've got to go out and play well on the road like we've done all year because it's a brand new series."

It could be, although that remains to be seen. The reality of this matchup is that despite being the regular-season Southeast Division champions, and thus the higher seed, the Panthers are widely perceived as the underdog against a New Jersey squad that finished with 102 points, eight more than the Panthers. Call it a function of Florida stumbling into the playoffs by losing eight of its final 10 regular-season games while the Devils were reeling off six wins in a row to close out their schedule.

And few minds were likely changed when the Devils nearly ran the Panthers out of their own building in the first period of its opening-game victory. But in the follow-up, Florida had its legs moving from the outset, building up enough of a cushion to withstand a furious third-period comeback effort that saw the Devils score a pair of early goals and direct several quality scoring chances at Panthers netminder Jose Theodore.

"We've got to look at the positives," Devils center Travis Zajac said. "We played some very good hockey, and when we play the way we're capable of playing, you know, we're a better team than them."

Just not on this night. Florida set the tone quickly with a spirited opening shift that led to Devils defenseman Andy Greene taking a tripping penalty after only 11 seconds. Florida wasted little time converting the opportunity and getting the sellout crowd of 19,248 engaged, with Weiss finding the rebound from Mikael Samuelsson's screen shot before beating a fallen Martin Brodeur.

From there, it was all about keeping the Devils back on their heels for the Panthers.

Weiss' second power-play goal early in the second period and then an even-strength marker 13 minutes later staked the Panthers to a big 3-0 lead, but just as critical to Florida's success was its ability to limit New Jersey to four shots in the first period and nine over the first two. In large part, that was because the Panthers were able to do a much more effective job gaining the Devils zone by keeping the puck away from Brodeur and chasing down pucks after softer dump-ins.

"It's something we had to do," Samuelsson said. "He helps out his defense a lot because he likes to play the puck, and we had to be aware of that."

Brodeur showed why when he stopped Samuelsson on a partial breakaway and started a play that led to Zajac's goal just 48 seconds into the third period. Ilya Kovalchuk redirected a pass from rookie Adam Henrique less than two minutes later. But Theodore made a pair of big stops on Zach Parise and Dainius Zubrus to preserve the one-goal lead until Tomas Fleischman iced things with a last-second empty netter that turned this into a best-of-five series.

"They definitely pushed back very hard, but I think the big thing is that we didn't panic after they scored those goals," said Theodore, after turning in a 23-save performance. "Obviously, we didn't want to go back to their building down 0-2, but we came out flying and then played a very stingy game. Now it's a brand-new series. It's what the playoffs are all about."