NEWARK, N.J. -- The Devils were desperate for a win Monday night to keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
Man, were they ever happy to see the Panthers come to town.
New Jersey got its precious two points in the standings by scoring three goals in the first before holding off the Panthers 6-3 at Prudential Center.
The game was a little closer than the Devils would have liked as Florida was within a goal in the third, but New Jersey was happy to escape with the win as Travis Zajac celebrated his first career hat trick.
“It’s the same thing. We get down, we’re not ready, we constantly battle back,’’ said Brad Boyes, who scored his team-high 20th early in the second.
“It just doesn’t change and that’s the frustrating part. Talk is cheap unless you do something about it.’’
When the Devils lost to the Panthers 5-3 in Sunrise two weeks ago, they were just two points out of the final spot. They started Monday five out.
New Jersey had to deal with goalie Roberto Luongo the last time out, but with Luongo back in South Florida, he wasn’t a concern of the Devils this time around.
Backup Dan Ellis continues to search for his first win since coming over from Dallas in a March 5 trade as he made 26 saves.
New Jersey took a 3-0 lead after outshooting Florida 17-3 to start things before Dmitry Kulikov got the Panthers’ first goal with Ed Jovanovski serving double penalties for jumping Jersey fourth liner Ryan Carter.
Florida went into the first break down 3-1 after being outshot 18-4 but battled back. The Panthers scored 50 seconds into the second when Boyes backhanded a shot past Martin Brodeur.
New Jersey’s Ryan Clowe made it 4-2 at 3:05 of the second, but New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer yanked Brodeur after Dylan Olsen’s long shot skipped off Brandon Pirri’s stick and hit the back of the net to make it 4-3 with 13:25 left in the period.
“The starts we’ve had are frustrating. We haven’t figured them out yet,” Pirri said. “We have a lot of resiliency in this room, but we can’t have those starts and hope to win games in this league.”
The Devils were hearing it from their fans coming into the third, but Jacob Josefson gave them some breathing room by scoring on a 35-foot wrister while his team was killing off a penalty.
Zajac finally got to see the caps rain down on the ice midway through the third as he made it 6-3 by working his own soft rebound past Ellis.
Two of the Devils’ first three goals came from Zajac as he opened the scoring 12 seconds in after poking a rebound past Ellis.
Almost 10 minutes later, Jaromir Jagr — “he looks like he’s getting better,” coach Peter Horachek said — fired a shot over Ellis’ shoulder for a 2-0 lead. Zajac made it 3-0 on a power play chance at 11:33 of the first.
If Scott Clemmensen was disappointed to not get the start Monday against his former team, he didn’t show it.
“I’m living the dream,” he said, soaked in sweat after the morning skate.
Clemmensen should get what likely will be his final start with the Panthers on Tuesday against the Islanders.
Horachek said before Monday’s game that he wanted Ellis — who has lost his first four starts since joining the Panthers — to get into a rhythm. Ellis didn’t get to play much in Dallas and the same has been true with the Panthers.
“I don’t know much about [a player’s history], and it means very little to me,” Horachek said. “Ellis is here and Clemmensen had been down [in the minors]. I think Ellis deserves to play some back-to-back games, get some timing down. He’s been a capable goalie, but the past two seasons, he hasn’t had many games and there has been a lot of time between them.”
Clemmensen originally signed with the Panthers in 2009 and is in his fifth season with the team. In the final year of a two-year deal, Clemmensen will very likely not return next season.
• With two assists Monday, center Nick Bjugstad became the fourth rookie in franchise history to have 20-plus assists in a season.