As such, the first six games of the Florida-New Jersey matchup decided nothing.
Welcome to Game 7.
Looking for their first series victory in 16 years, the Panthers will have home ice tonight for the ultimate game of their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Devils, who forced the winner-take-all matchup with a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 6. Itâs only the second Game 7 in franchise history for Florida, which won one of these in Pittsburgh in the 1996 East finals.
âItâs do or die,â Panthers goalie Jose Theodore said yesterday. âThese are the kind of games you want to be part of. I mean, everybody when youâre a kid and you play hockey, you always imagine that itâs Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. So obviously itâs a game everybody wants to be part of and help the team win.â
Theodore did not play in Game 6 because of an unspecified injury. He worked out at the Panthersâ practice rink yesterday, taking shots from a few teammates for about 35 minutes, saying afterward that he felt better than he did the day before. Itâs common for Florida â" which started Scott Clemmensen in Game 6 â" to not reveal whoâs starting until game day, but by his standards, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen showed his hand yesterday.
âTheo has been our go-to guy,â Dineen said after watching a few minutes of Theodoreâs workout. âAnd if heâs available, heâll be the one running with it.â
The sense in the Florida dressing room was that being at home for Game 7 is a huge boost, given how much energy the team says it gets from its fans.
Perspectives seemed much different 1,250 miles to the north.
Before leaving for their flight to South Florida, the Devils talked about how going on the road for the final game of a series can minimize distractions, though there is one they cannot ignore. A New Jersey loss could usher in the end of goaltender Martin Brodeurâs career, because heâll be a free agent this summer and will be 40 on May 6.
âI plan on coming back,â Brodeur said. âItâs a decision that weâll make later on. I know a lot of people have asked me about it being my last game. You never know. Iâm just going to enjoy the moment. Itâs Game 7. Itâs why we all play hockey.â
The Devils outshot Florida, 42-16, in Game 6, not getting the winner until Travis Zajac got a shot past Clemmensen 5:39 into overtime. The Panthers had a chance at the other end to send New Jersey into summer seconds earlier, Brodeur going down while the puck was dangerously loose a few feet away, before Zajac and a couple other teammates found a way to clear and start what became the winning rush.
Zajac ran to the corner of the ice, mobbed by teammates. By yesterday afternoon, he was calm again.
âWinning Game 7 would be nicer,â Zajac said. âThatâs all thatâs on our minds now. It was definitely rewarding to score the goal, but it means nothing if we donât win Game 7. Weâve played six games against them now. We know what is going to work and what doesnât.â