By TIM REYNOLDS, Associated Press
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Martin Brodeur stopped 24 shots for his 100th postseason win, and a three-goal first period was enough to help the New Jersey Devils spoil the Florida Panthers' long-awaited return to the Stanley Cup playoffs in a 3-2 victory Friday night.
Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus and Ryan Carter scored in a span of just over 8 minutes in the opening period for the Devils.
Brodeur also picked up an assist for his 10th postseason point, and became the second goalie in NHL history to reach triple-figures in playoff wins. Only Patrick Roy has more, with 151.
Sean Bergenheim and Kris Versteeg scored for Florida, which was in its first postseason game since losing to Brodeur and the Devils on April 20, 2000. Jose Theodore made 35 saves for the Panthers.
Game 2 is Sunday night.
Florida got home-ice for at least the first round by winning the Southeast Division title, the first team since Detroit in 1988-89 to be outscored over a regular season and still win a division crown. Even with the NBA's Miami Heat playing at home on Friday and with the Miami Marlins hosting a regular-season game in their new ballpark for just the second time, the Panthers have been getting plenty of newfound attention in recent days.
"I know the fans here are thrilled that the 12-year drought is over ... and I think there are good times ahead for this franchise," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was in the crowd. "I think it's well on the right path."
But for all the excitement in the building over the Panthers' playoff return, it was the Devils who came out flying.
By the time the game was barely 6 minutes old, New Jersey already had gotten 12 shots on Theodore, who came up big time and again in the early moments.
New Jersey was denied on two great chances early, the first when Elias came in on a breakaway after a turnover only to have his shot nudged aside by Theodore, who spun around unsure of where the puck actually was before it was cleared away. A minute later, Ilya Kovalchuk brought the puck up the left-wing boards, then charged the net after Travis Zajac's shot but just couldn't get enough stick on the rebound.
No matter. The breakthrough came soon enough.
Elias got the puck in the right-wing circle, deked twice as Theodore flailed about before eventually winding up seated on the ice — and helpless as the shot eventually sailed by for the game's opening goal.
A double-minor against Florida's Shawn Matthias for high-sticking came at 10:18, and the Devils kept up the attack.
And with just eight seconds left in that power play, Zubrus was rewarded, getting alone in front of Theodore to make it 2-0. Less than a minute later, Carter — who spent seven games with Florida this season before being waived on Oct. 25 — picked up the puck after a turnover, skated in and beat Theodore low to the glove side for a 3-0 lead that left a building that had been so loud a few minutes earlier in disbelief.
The first 20 minutes were beyond one-sided. The Devils outshot Florida 26-9 — the most shots any NHL team had managed in a playoff first period since Philadelphia took 28 against Pittsburgh on April 21, 1997, according to STATS LLC.
Eventually, the Panthers settled down.
Bergenheim got Florida's first goal at 7:44 of the second, and with the Panthers on the power play at 15:42, Versteeg made it a one-goal game. He got the puck on the goal line to the right of the net, found his way to the front and squirted the puck past Brodeur to get Florida to 3-2.
From there, Brodeur was a wall.
He swept Florida out of its last playoff appearance 12 years ago, and was just as tough to beat this time around. The Panthers' best chance to tie might have come with about 5 minutes left, when Dmitry Kulikov had an open shot from the top of the left circle, only to have Brodeur coolly kick it aside.
NOTES: Elias' goal was the 41st of his playoff career, tying him with Teemu Selanne for eighth among active players. ... Panthers coach Kevin Dineen scored six goals in his career against Brodeur, three in the regular season, three more in the playoffs — including the final point Dineen would ever get in a postseason game, for Philadelphia in 1995. ... Florida's last postseason victory was April 17, 1997, against the New York Rangers. ... Friday marked the first time the Heat, Marlins and Panthers all played in the Miami market on the same night since April 14, 2002.
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