Even though the Panthers aren’t getting the results they want every night, they are playing their best hockey of the season.
It has come a lot later than they had hoped, and in a lockout-shortened season. Way too late.
The Panthers played another solid game Saturday night yet mustered just one goal against certain Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur as they fell 2-1 to the Devils at Prudential Center.
“Too bad there are just a few games left in our season,” said Tomas Fleischmann, who set up Peter Mueller for Florida’s only goal, then fought Adam Henrique once the final horn sounded. “We are feeling good about our game right now. … This is how we should have been playing all season. But we didn’t.”
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Said coach Kevin Dineen: “I can sit here and paint the picture that we weren’t bad, chances fairly even, did a good job on the penalty kill. But it’s a results business. We didn’t get it done. Close is just not working. the effort is there, we didn’t give up a lot. We just couldn’t find a way to win.”
Even though these two teams battled it out in a seven-game thriller last postseason, they are two different squads today.
The Panthers, who had won two in a row for just the second time this season coming in, sit in last place in the NHL although they are technically the defending Southeast Division champs. A slew of injuries have sapped the Panthers, keeping them from making a run in a division no one seems to want to win.
New Jersey, meanwhile, started Saturday in seventh place in the east. Making an upward move will be slowed with the loss of star Ilya Kovalchuk to a shoulder injury in the third period. The Devils didn’t disclose how long Kovalchuk would be out, but it didn’t sound good.
“Florida is playing well, played well on this road trip and we knew it would be tough,” said Pete DeBoer, now in his second year behind the Devils’ bench after being fired by the Panthers.
After a hard-to-watch first period — the Devils got two shots from Steve Bernier in the opening four minutes then nothing else — New Jersey took the first lead on its third shot of the night 1:24 into the second when Travis Zajac hooked up with Patrik Elias off a Florida turnover.
Ten minutes later, David Clarkson fired a shot at Florida starter Scott Clemmensen that was initially blocked. Clemmensen, who once played in Jersey and historically has done well here, mishandled the puck and failed to cover it up. Clarkson pounced and chopped at it, putting it past for a 2-0 lead.
“In a short season, every game is so important and we’ve been playing pretty good lately,” said Clemmensen, who made 23 saves. “I thought it was a well-played game by both teams. The score reflects that. But it’s tough to win on the road.”
Florida cut into its deficit with just under 10 seconds left in the second when Fleischmann tied up Brodeur behind the net and slipped a nice pass to Mueller crashing in. Mueller picked up his seventh goal of the year by popping the puck into an empty net.
But Panthers couldn’t get anything else past Brodeur, as he stopped all six shots faced in the final 20.
“We ran out of gas, had a short bench there at the end,” Dineen said. “It’s been the same old story; we haven’t been able to finish with the complete lineup. It makes things challenging.”
There seemed to be some feistiness between the two teams as the game went on. It ended with Fleischmann and Henrique — whose team beat the Panthers in double overtime in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series last April — throwing punches after Scottie Upshall put Bryce Salvadore into the boards as time expired.
“Their guy speared Upshall. I asked him why and he punched me so I punched him back,” Fleischmann said.
• Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was back after he missed the previous 10 games after dislocating a shoulder March 2. Kulikov replaced Erik Gudbranson (flu).
• Shawn Matthias left the game during the second period after taking a hard shot to the face from Kulikov. Matthias took a mess of stitches above his left eye and returned to start the third.
• Jack Skille left the game with 7:35 remaining with an undisclosed injury. Dineen said Florida might have recall another player from their AHL affiliate in San Antonio.