The Panthers’ home opener could have gone worse, although it’s hard to imagine how.
Not only did New Jersey start scoring less than three minutes in, but the Devils completely dominated Florida in a 5-1 victory held before a small contingent at BB&T Center.
"The margin of error is so thin in this league that if you don’t come out to play in the first 10 [minutes], you get your you-know-what handed to you," captain Willie Mitchell said.
The announced attendance of 11,419 was the smallest for a home opener in franchise history.
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The previous low was 12,087 at Miami Arena for the 1995-96 debut famously remembered as the "Rat Trick" game.
Saturday’s four-goal defeat was also Florida’s most-lopsided home-opening loss, besting three-goal losses to the Devils (2007) and Islanders (2001).
Goalie Roberto Luongo, who was pulled early in the second period, said Florida’s play wasn’t a result of the small crowd.
"The people here were loud and as players, that’s all we ask for," Luongo said. "People are coming to encourage our team. We need to reward them with a better start."
Although the Panthers put up quite a fight in Thursday’s season opener at Tampa Bay before losing in overtime, Saturday’s game was over quickly.
Florida fell behind 3-0 at the 13:13 mark of the opening period. With 28 seconds left in the first, Damon Severson made it 4-0.
"We had a bad start to the game, and it’s tough to battle back against a team like New Jersey," said coach Gerard Gallant, who yanked Luongo three minutes into the second after the Devils jumped to a 5-0 lead on Ryan Clowe’s slap shot.
"We didn’t compete hard enough to win."
The Devils fired from all parts of the ice Saturday, and Luongo couldn’t find the puck.
Three of the five goals he surrendered came from 50 feet out or farther; one was a redirection off another long slap shot and the fifth and final one came off a shot from the slot.
Gallant said he thought about pulling Luongo after Severson’s goal but decided against it.
"Louie is a battler," Gallant said. "We were down 4-0 in our opener, but I wanted to give him another chance to get out there and battle. When they got that fifth goal, I wanted to make a change for the team. ... I don’t put it on Louie. It was just a bad hockey game for us."
Luongo said he’s had bad games before and is going to put Saturday’s performance behind him. New Jersey led 2-0 before the 10-minute mark on goals from Eric Gelinas and Martin Havlat. Mike Cammalleri made it 3-0 with 6:47 left in the period.
"It was a tough start, but no excuses," said Luongo, who gave up five goals on 14 shots. "I have to keep the team in the game by making a couple of saves, and I didn’t do that. It’s a disappointing performance."
Florida’s offense never really got anything going against Cory Schneider — who was Luongo’s teammate in Vancouver until he was traded away before last season.
Schneider, who lost to Luongo in their meeting last year in Sunrise, stopped 28 shots and got lucky late in the first when Brian Campbell’s long shot rang off the post. A few minutes later, Severson scored and the Devils were all but golden.
"It could have gotten us going and from the corner, I have to find a way to get it in there," Campbell said. "New Jersey is known for holding down leads pretty good. You can’t win games on a consistent basis like that."
Down 5-0, Gallant brought in backup Al Montoya. The crowd wildly cheered when Montoya (10 saves) made a glove save on a shot moments after coming into the game.
Florida finally got on the board with 3:29 left in the second period when newcomer Derek MacKenzie got in front of Schneider and whacked at a loose puck to earn the team’s first power-play goal of the young season.
The Panthers never any closer.
"We didn’t compete and no one is fooling anyone," Mitchell said. "It was there in Tampa. You always want to play well, every game is a big game in this league. But the home opener, you want to play well. It takes the wind out of your sails a little bit."