Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/14/12
SUNRISE, Fla.-- With fans waving red towels and Dan Marino dropping the ceremonial first puck, it had all the makings of a banner return to the playoffs for the Florida Panthers. Just one problem. Friday's game began at 7 p.m., and the Panthers didn't show up until their usual starting time of 7:30 p.m at BankAtlantic Center. The New Jersey Devils stunned the Panthers with three goals in the first 15 minutes. And that turned out to be enough for a 3-2 win in the opener of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal. It was the first playoff game for Florida since 2000, and there was a buzz in the air at the start. But perhaps all of that got to the Panthers. "There was a lot of electricity and energy, and that's something that we got excited about," Florida right wing Kris Versteeg said of the crowd of 19,119. "Maybe that was a little part of the start to our game too, maybe a little bit of nerves. Having a crowd like that come out here and do that for us, it was great, and maybe that was a bit of the first-period blunder." Versteeg did his best to try to salvage matters after the Panthers had fallen behind 3-0. His goal with 4:18 left in the second period cut the deficit to 3-2, and got the fans back in the game. But nobody scored the rest of the way. Florida simply could not overcome the Devils firing 26 shots in the first period. Panthers goalie Jose Theodore, who had 35 saves, did what he could but goals early by Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus and Ryan Carter doomed them. Zubrus' goal, which made it 2-0 and came just eight seconds before the Panthers could kill a power play, came courtesy of an assist by New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur. He fired the puck up the ice to David Clarkson, who also got an assist by passing to Zubrus for the goal. To know what long Brodeur has been around, consider he was on hand the last time the Panthers were in a playoff series. That was a 4-0 Eastern quarterfinal loss to the Devils 12 years ago. "In the regular season, we have a lot of people from (New) Jersey coming up, but the playoffs they got great support," said Brodeur, a 19-year veteran who became just the second goalie in NHL history to win a 100th playoff game, joining Patrick Roy, who picked up 151. "I was telling (teammates), You'll see. Don't think it's going to be like a regular-season game here. It's going to be playoff hockey."' Indeed it was, even if a lot of the fans could barely remember the last time Florida played host to a playoff game. The crowd was loud at the start, and the public-address announcer came on to bellow, "The Florida Panthers look to send the Devils back to hell." NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in the crowd. And there were big cheers when Marino, the legendary Dolphins quarterback, came out to drop the puck while wearing a Panthers No. 13 jersey with his name on the pack. Unfortunately for the fans, not much changed from the last time the Panthers were in the postseason. Taking into account losing the last four games of an Eastern quarterfinal in 1997 to New York and being swept in 2000 by New Jersey, the Panthers now have lost nine straight playoff games. Their last playoff game win was April 17, 1997 over the Rangers. "I thought it was fabulous," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said of the atmosphere at the start. "You could see there was a buzz, you could feel it right in the stands. Our fans were certainly engaged, but we took a little wind out of their sails with the start of the game." Three quick goals will do that. But the Panthers never stopped believing they could come back. The margin was cut to 3-1 on a goal by Sean Bergenheim with 12:16 left in the second period. Then Versteeg struck with his goal. "We always believe. We've done it to this team early in the regular season," said defensiveman Brian Campbell, referring to the Panthers coming back from a 3-0 deficit at the end of the first period beat the Devils at home on Nov. 21. "I know playoffs are different. We saw Pittsburgh-Philly Game 1. Philly did it (coming back to win from a 3-0 first-period deficit). So, yeah, you definitely believe in what you're capable of doing." But the Panthers didn't get a lot of great chances in the third period. And when they did Brodeur, who had 24 saves, shut the door. "Marty had another great game, and that's why we're successful," Clarkson said. Brodeur, who turns 40 next month, was the oldest player in the game. As for the Panthers' most senior guy, he was disappointed to see them falter in their return to the playoffs. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski, 35, was with the Panthers when they made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 and when they won that last playoff game in 1997. He departed in 1999 before returning before this season. "It could of," Jovanovski said of there being some nervousness at the start due to the team finally being back in the palyoffs. "We were a little jumpy early. The fans have been good. It's an exciting time for hockey in this community. We got to come out with a better start." The Panthers will have another chance in Game 2 Sunday at BankAtlantic Center. And that game does start at 7:30 p.m. Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter@christomasson
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