Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/18/12
NEWARK, N.J. The NHL's best penalty-kill unit had its worst night of the season Tuesday, and that untimely flop when a man down may have killed its chances at a first-round playoff upset. The New Jersey Devils had everything going their way early on during their Game 3 matchup with the Florida Panthers at the Prudential Center, taking a commanding 3-0 lead before many fans had found their seats. But the Panthers rebounded with four unanswered goals in an 11-minute span, including three on the power play, in a shocking 4-3 win. It was the first time the Devils allowed three power-play goals in a game this season, and it was the first time since 1988 that New Jersey lost a playoff game after leading by three or more goals, a span of 56 contests. "I don't really have an explanation," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said after the game. "I think we've got to learn as a group how to play in that situation and it starts with not taking penalties. We've been burned in two games now taking penalties, and their power play has been the difference." Sure, Florida's power play is good good enough to put them in the top 10 in the league in power-play conversion. And through three games in the series, the Panthers have scored on six of their 10 chances with a man advantage. But to say that this kind of collapse on the part of the Devils was expected would be to overlook just how impressive their penalty-kill unit has been all season long. New Jersey led the NHL in penalty-kill percentage this season, with an 89.6 percent success rate, and the Devils were also not especially prone to giving up leads, either, winning 72.7 percent of their games when scoring first. The victory gave No. 3 seed Florida a team many wrote off as fools gold and an easy out, given their low point total in comparison to teams seeded lower than them in the East a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. And for the Devils, it was the type of, rare, unexplainable, heartbreaking loss that can change a team's outlook going forward. The mood in the New Jersey locker room after the game was a distinctly and understandably somber one, but the Devils seemed determined not to let some poor play so far impact the complexion of the entire series, which picks back up Thursday in Newark. "I don't think it's a concern," New Jersey forward David Clarkson said of the Devils' penalty-kill unit. "They've been the best in the league all season, and there's going to be times when bounces go their way and things happen. I still think they're doing a great job; they're working hard. I think we've just got to stay patient here, don't get too excited, ride this out and we'll be OK." It didn't take long for New Jersey to start imposing its will Tuesday night, as captain Zach Parise lit the lamp with his 14th career playoff goal just 33 seconds into the game. Stephen Gionta added a second goal less than three minutes later, giving the Devils a 2-0 advantage with 16:33 left in the first. Veteran centerman Patrick Elias added a goal, his second of the playoffs, on a power play following an interference penalty by Florida's Kris Versteeg, giving the Devils a 3-0 lead just 6:16 into the game and forcing Panthers coach Kevin Dineen to pull starting netminder Jose Theodore. But the Panthers wouldn't go away and took advantage of two power-play opportunities late in the first, cutting the score to 3-1 on Sean Bergenheim's goal with 3:49 left and 3-2 on Jason Garrison's goal with 7.4 seconds to go. "We were getting overwhelmed, getting outplayed," Dineen said of the comeback, which was the biggest in the playoffs in franchise history. "All of a sudden, we're walking in and we're down one on the road. That happens all the time. It was very easy to settle them down after that." Devils fans chanted goalie Martin Brodeur's name on multiple occasions early in the period, but by the end of the first they were booing the Devils off the ice, and by the time most fans had returned from the concourse for the second period, the score was tied 3-3 and the future Hall of Famer had been pulled from the game. It was the first time that Brodeur, who was making his 184th career playoff appearance, was pulled from a playoff game since the third period of Game 1 of the 2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. In that game, he allowed six goals to Carolina and was replaced by current Panthers goalie Scott Clemensen, who made 19 saves Tuesday after replacing Theodore. Brodeur, who had a career .919 playoff save percentage coming in, allowed three goals on 12 shots before getting the hook and seemed frustrated afterward that he didn't get the chance to ride out the rest of the game. "I don't think you expect when you're not losing the game yet to get pulled," said Brodeur, who admitted that he had not yet talked with DeBoer about the decision to remove him. "I don't know exactly what he was thinking, but I'm sure there was a good reason." That good reason, according to DeBoer, was that his team needed a spark, and he didn't think he was going to get it from the 39-year-old veteran. "I thought (the first intermission) was an opportunity for us all to catch our breath and get our game back in order, and then they score on the first shot of the second period," DeBoer said, noting that Brodeur would be back in net for Game 4. "So at that point I have to do my job and try to get a momentum shift back in our direction, so I chose to do it that way." Any momentum the move generated was quickly erased when Brian Campbell's power-play goal gave the Panthers their first lead of the game at 4-3 with 13:26 left in the second. Then it only got worse for New Jersey when they had a goal waved off due to an incidental contact call on Steve Bernier, who fell into Clemmensen DeBoer called the contact "marginal" with 1:24 left in the period. It's the second time in three games Florida has faced a 3-0 first-period lead, but they shouldn't get used to making comebacks like the one they put together Tuesday night. "We've got to keep it going for the whole game," said defenseman Mike Weaver, whose goal tied the game at 3-3. "We've got to play a full 60 minutes. I thought we played a period and a half of good hockey, and with every game it gets tougher and tougher. We've just got to keep things simple and play our style of hockey." In a series that has been anything but short on excitement New Jersey also nearly gave up a 3-0 lead in Game 1, and Florida almost blew a 3-0 advantage of their own in Game 2 it's certainly safe to say that it's not over. Florida knows a win Thursday could spell the end for a Devils team that, to say the least, is back on its heels after two straight collapses. But they also know it won't be easy. "Only one team can win the Cup so for all the other teams, and even the team that wins the Cup, there's going to be ups and downs in the playoffs," Clemmensen said. "No team's going to win 16 games in a row and walk through to the Stanley Cup and hoist it at the end." Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner
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