Thursday, April 26, 2012

Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils bring on Game 7 - Worcester Telegram

SUNRISE, Fla. â€"  The numbers could not be more even: Three wins each, 15 goals per team.

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. It’s only the second Game 7 in franchise history for Florida, which won one of these in Pittsburgh in the 1996 East finals.

“It’s do or die,” Panthers goalie Jose Theodore said yesterday. “These are the kind of games you want to be part of. I mean, everybody when you’re a kid and you play hockey, you always imagine that it’s Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. So obviously it’s a game everybody wants to be part of and help the team win.”

Theodore did not play in Game 6 because of an unspecified injury. He worked out at the Panthers’ 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. It’s common for Florida â€" which started Scott Clemmensen in Game 6 â€" to not reveal who’s starting until game day, but by his standards, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen showed his hand yesterday.

“Theo has been our go-to guy,” Dineen said after watching a few minutes of Theodore’s workout. “And if he’s available, he’ll be the one running with it.”

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 Brodeur’s career, because he’ll be a free agent this summer and will be 40 on May 6.

“I plan on coming back,” Brodeur said. “It’s a decision that we’ll make later on. I know a lot of people have asked me about it being my last game. You never know. I’m just going to enjoy the moment. It’s Game 7. It’s why we all play hockey.”

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.

“Winning Game 7 would be nicer,” Zajac said. “That’s all that’s on our minds now. It was definitely rewarding to score the goal, but it means nothing if we don’t win Game 7. We’ve played six games against them now. We know what is going to work and what doesn’t.”

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