The Devils could not drop out of the playoff hunt with a loss tonight in Sunrise, Florida against the Panthers – the Flyers do not play again until Saturday – but when they were downed 3-2 by Florida, it really is now just a matter of time.
In their first and only visit to BB&T Center in Florida, the Devils got Cory Schneider back, however he spent the night on the bench watching as the backup. The Devils said that his failing to play was not a matter of his knee, but rather conditioning, he just needed one more night off to prepare. He will start on Saturday at Tampa Bay. Scott Wedgewood was sent back down to Albany.
Patrik Elias also made the trip down to the Sunshine State with the team. He told MSG+ cameras that “hopefully this is not the end.” He seems to want to return to New Jersey and only regrets his injury this season if it is the end (he mentioned that he loves watching the group that the Devils have now and would have liked to play with them more than he did).
Also back in the Devils’ lineup was Tyler Kennedy (back from injury). Tuomo Ruutu was a healthy scratch.
The Devils would have to face a team, in the Florida Panthers, with a good mix of youth and veteran leadership (Jaromir Jagr is 44 years old and still playing at a high level). The Panthers took over the Atlantic Division lead from their intra-state rivals (and the Devils’ next opponents, the Tampa Bay Lightning, with this win. They are a good team and will make some noise come playoff time.
There was a plastic rat giveaway tonight that would have an impact on the game later on. The rats are an homage to Scott Mellanby and the 1996 Florida Panthers (who were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Colorado Avalanche after a Cinderella run). Mellanby infamously killed a rat with his stick in the Panthers’ locker room at the Miami Arena and the plastic rats became a symbol of their playoff run from then on.
Keith Kinkaid started for the Devils, making 37 saves on 40 shots faced. That stat line does not do his game justice. He played very well, coming up big for the Devils time and again – he started the game making a huge left pad save on an Aleksander Barkov breakaway – he was just outdueled by the Panthers.
Starting in net for Florida was Al Montoya who made 23 saves on 25 shots faced. The Devils, for the second game in a row, were badly outshot yet managed to keep the game relatively close.
The game started in a frenzy of penalties. Brian Campbell of the Panthers took an interference call against Joseph Blandisi just 42 seconds in to the game. That resulted in nothing for the Devils, but things got a little bit weird after that. First, Adam Larsson was called for hooking at 4:06. The Panthers went on the power play. Then Stephen Gionta was called for hooking as well at 5:45. It was a 5-on-3 advantage for Florida. The Larsson penalty expired and it was 4-on-3. Then, at 6:50, Florida’s Jiri Hudler was called for holding Sergey Kalinin’s stick. Now it was 4-on-4. And when the Gionta penalty expired, it was New Jersey that ended up with the man advantage.
The Devils would connect on that one. Adam Henrique came out of the corner and passed to Devante Smith-Pelly in the slot. He took a shot, Montoya made the save and the puck came out to Mike Sislo, who fired one over Montoya’s glove side to give the Devils a 1-0 lead at 8:30 of the first period.
For Henrique, that assist was the 200th point of his NHL career, congrats to the man known as “Rico.”
The Panthers’ youth would be on display when youngster Jonathan Huberdeau scored at 7:57 to knot things up at one. Assists went to Shawn Thornton and Aaron Ekblad. It was here that the fans began throwing the plastic rats on the ice to celebrate the goal. The announcement was made over the public address system that should fans throw anything on the ice from here on out, the Panthers would be assessed a bench minor for delay of game.
The Devils weathered a ton of shots from the Cats late in the second period. The Panthers also pulled Montoya with just a little over two seconds left in the second period and the faceoff in the Devils’ zone. A rare and gutsy move (should the Devils have won the faceoff) that ultimately did not pay off.
The Devils began the third period with a good chance, as Kyle Palmieri broke in on Montoya with just 30 seconds having ticked by on the clock. Dmitry Kulikov slashed his stick, breaking it and getting whistled for slashing. As Ken Daneyko pointed out, it was a good penalty though, as Palmieri had Kulikov beat and was one-on-one with the Panther goalie.
The Devils did not convert on that power play and at 3:13 of the third, Huberdeau would connect again off assists to Jagr and Campbell. The fans again threw the rats on the ice and, because the fans had been warned, giving Florida a bench minor and the Devils a man advantage. This was the first time in NHL history that a penalty was assessed after such a warning. Florida would kill that off.
Jagr had the first of two assists on the night, making the “Traveling Jagrs” – who were in attendance – very happy. They are a group of fans who follow Jagr around dressed in the different jerseys that he has worn throughout his long and illustrious career.
Jagr and Panther fans could again celebrate when he would play a huge role in the third Florida goal. The Devils had been applying a lot of pressure during a 5-on-3 early in the third when the Cats’ Quinton Howden was serving the bench minor and Steven Kampfer was called for tripping. Montoya came up huge during this sequence, so much so that the fans were chanting his name as the game was going into a TV timeout following the Devils’ power play was killed.
Late in the third, at 17:52, David Warsofsky made a great move seemingly beating Jagr just inside the Panthers’ blueline as the Devils were pressuring. However, Jagr, using the long reach of his longer-than-most stick; poke checked the puck away from Warsofsky and was away on a 2-on-1 with Aleksander Barkov. Barkov scored to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead. Again the fans threw the rats on the ice and again Florida drew a bench minor.
They killed that, but the momentum stayed with the Devils and, with just about six seconds left in the game, Blake Pietila wristed one past Montoya unassisted for his first NHL goal. The goal was reviewed, but stood as a good goal. However, the Devils just did not have enough time left to mount a comeback, making Jagr’s play and the ensuing goal that much more important for Florida.
So, when the dust settled, the Devils are all but eliminated from playoff contention (although not officially) and the Panthers had retaken the lead in the Atlantic Division. The Devils will see the team vying with them for that top spot next as they travel to Tampa to take on the Lightning on Saturday. Cory Schneider is expected to start.
The Devils will see Tampa twice in three games. They return home to play out their last string of games against the Sabres, Lightning and Maple Leafs after they return home from Florida.