By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Before red-clad fans of the Florida Panthers could barely get settled in their seats Sunday night at BankAtlantic Center, stow away their plastic rats somewhere safe and get their food and beverage situated, the home team was on the power play and Stephen Weiss was preparing to get the fans back on their feet.
The 2001 first-round pick also was ready to give the Panthers life in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with New Jersey, which he did with a pair of power-play goals in Florida's 4-2 win over the Devils to tie the series at 1-1.
And that's how this series, perhaps the most unheralded, least glittery one of the eight being played, has unfolded for the eventual victors: Snatch momentum early by scoring often, then hang on to the lead for dear life.
Weiss was instrumental in putting the Panthers up by two goals -- and he did it early. He cashed in on a rebound off Mikael Samuelsson's shot from the point just 23 seconds into the game. The top line center scored in similar fashion on a 5-on-3 power play 1:12 into the second period by flipping in a shot that bounced off Marcel Goc, who was camped in front of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur.
Weiss's first goal was the fastest one in Florida playoff history and the quickest power-play marker in the NHL playoffs since 1987. After appearing in 637 regular season games without a playoff appearance, it was only fitting that it was the 29-year-old Weiss, the sentimental series favorite, who sparked Florida to its first playoff win since an April 17, 1997, 3-0 win over the New York Rangers in the old Miami Arena.
"It's obviously huge," said Weiss, whose club trailed 3-0 to New Jersey in Game 1 before losing 3-2. "They got it on us last game and that was enough for them. And we got the same jump on them tonight and it turned out to be enough for us. So it seems to be important."
Right wing Kris Versteeg echoed his center. Versteeg recorded an assist on the first goal by drawing in the New Jersey penalty-kill unit, which operated at an NHL-record 89.6 percent clip this season, and sending a pass out to Samuelsson to set up the shot and rebound.
"We really talked about having a good start against a good-starting team," Versteeg said. "We came out guns blazing and were ready to go."
Florida added another when Goc calmly skated with the puck near the right circle, moved in and fired a shot past Brodeur. From then on, the Panthers had to hold on, especially after Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk cut it to 3-2 just 2:02 into the third period.
Goalie Jose Theodore stood strong, stopping both Zach Parise and Kovalchuk with just over two minutes left. The Panthers finally sealed its first-ever win at BAC when Tomas Fleischmann blocked Kovalchuk's shot in the dying seconds of regulation after Dainius Zubrus beat Weiss on a faceoff with 7.6 seconds remaining. Fleischmann gathered the puck and scored an empty-netter with one second left as fans again rose -- replica rodents in hand -- and rained those precious rats onto the ice.
"It was nice to see that we recognized we needed a good start, and we got that good start," said Panthers coach Kevin Dineen.
Two games, two 3-0 leads, two big advantages that had to be held on to the bitter end by standout goaltending and key defensive plays.
In this best-of-7 series, it's not about how a team ends, it's about how it starts.
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