On November 21, 2011, the New Jersey Devils visited the Florida Panthers in what was Devils head coach Pete DeBoer's first trip there since being dismissed as Florida's head coach. That night, New Jersey jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead behind goals from Ilya Kovalchuk, Dainius Zubrus and Petr Sykora. The game looked like it was in the bag after 20 minutes of play.
We all know what happened next.
Florida scored two goals in the second period and two in the third to cap a remarkable comeback, culminating with Tomas Fleischmann's game-winner with 2:03 left in the third period. It marked the first time in franchise history that the Panthers rallied from a three-goal deficit to win a game in regulation time. After the game, an obviously upset DeBoer vented:
"We stopped playing after the 3-0 lead. A good lesson learned and a credit to them. They didn't stop. We probably got what we deserved at the end."
Last night, as the Devils clung to a one-goal lead heading into the third, deja vu appeared to be setting in. New Jersey played a practically flawless first period, peppering Florida netminder Jose Theodore with an incredible 26 shots on goal, a good majority of which were legitimate scoring chances. But as well as the Devils played in the first period, they almost gave it all back in the second, as the team looked flat and somewhat sloppy, surrendering two goals and managing just six shots. Heading into the third, Florida had the momentum. It was a flashback to last November's embarrassing collapse, this time in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Or was it?
The Devils played a tough, gritty third period, still managing just six shots, but holding Florida to six as well. The team was much more physical and disciplined, not giving an inch of ice to the desperate Panthers skaters.
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"I thought our third period was great. That's exactly how you want to play with a lead. We bottled them up, had a few great chances to score. About as good a period as you can play with a lead," DeBoer said.
As for the near-collapse and its chilling similarity to the November 21 game, the Devils coach acknowledged it, but he explained that his confidence in his team is at a different level than it was in the second month of the season.
"That was so long ago, I barely remember it. If you believe that, I've got some swamp land here in Florida to sell you." DeBoer said, laughing. "We're at a different point in the season, I feel very comfortable with our ability to play with a lead, to play in those situations, much more than I did when we were here the first time. While it crosses your mind, my comfort level is real high."
The Devils look to take a commanding 2-0 lead in Florida Sunday night before heading back to New Jersey for games four and five.