After two home games for the Florida Panthers, their first-round series in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New Jersey Devils shifts back to New Jersey for a pair of road games with the series tied at 1 apiece.
Here are five key takeaways from Game 2 for the Panthers as they head to Newark and prepare for their first road playoff game in over a decade.
As the playoffs drew near, most teams had their final lineups set for Game 1 fairly early. We were able to analyze their regular season numbers and determine who had the advantage heading into the first round.
But the Panthers kept quiet until just before Game 1 as coach Kevin Dineen had a difficult decision to make regarding his starting goaltender.
Either start Jose Theodore, the playoff-tested netminder who held the No. 1 position for most of the regular season or veteran backup Scott Clemmensen, who played well down the stretch and helped the Panthers clinch their first Southeast Division title.
In the days leading up the series, many — myself included — speculated that Theodore might be on the shortest leash of any starting goaltender in the playoffs.
In their matchup with the Devils, the Panthers would need stellar goaltending to stay competitive with a well-balanced opponent capable of scoring quick goals and shutting down offenses.
With Clemmensen's record against his former team a perfect 4-0 and the team's overall struggles playing in front of Theodore in their last 10, some believed one bad period from Theodore would lead to a switch to Clemmensen.
Fortunately for Panthers fans, that assessment was wrong. Dineen stuck with Theodore even after he gave up three goals on 26 shots in the opening period of Game 1. Mostly a result of poor play in front of him, Dineen stuck with his No. 1 and was rewarded as Jose shut the door for the rest of the game as Florida fell in Game 1 by a score of 3-2.
In Game 2 Dineen was rewarded again for sticking with Theodore, who stayed strong in net and helped protect an early 3-0 lead, eventually winning the game 3-2.
For the playoffs Jose Theodore has a .921 save percentage and a 2.52 GAA, outdueling his counterpart for New Jersey, Martin Brodeur, who sports a .898 save percentage and a 2.54 GAA.
If Theodore can continue this high level of play on the road, there's a good chance we see more plastic rats on the ice when the series shifts back to Sunrise.
In Game 1, the Panthers came out of the gate flat and were overwhelmed by the amount of energy and pressure the Devils brought to the game.
New Jersey outshot Florida 26-9 in the first period of Game 1, and the result was a 3-0 hole that Florida was not able to scratch and claw their way out of.
The first period version of the Florida Panthers from Game 2 was more aggressive both on and off the puck, attacking quickly and defending with strength as they succeeded in putting the Devils on their heels.
A quick drive through the crease drew a penalty and on the resulting power play the Panthers top unit cashed in for a 1-0 lead just 23 seconds into the game.
As the series moves to Newark, the Panthers would be wise to remember how they started each game in the series so far. Come out flat and let New Jersey on the board early, and the Panthers will have a difficult time coming back against a stifling defense. Scoring early and building confidence will be the blueprint for victory for Florida moving forward.
Often called the "game within the game", the special teams battle will often send a playoff team into the second round or out of the playoffs entirely.
Right now, Florida is winning it—emphatically—and it's a big reason why they won Game 2 and have the momentum in their favor as the series moves to Newark.
Following Game 2, in which Stephen Weiss scored two power play goals, the Panthers are now converting on 42.9 percent of their power plays. That number is good for second overall in the NHL behind only the Philadelphia Flyers who have victimized the defensively clueless Pittsburgh Penguins for 6.67 total goals per game. (Florida is averaging less than half that figure, at 3 goals per game).
Furthermore, Florida's power play is having success against the supposed best penalty kill in the league.
The key seems to be a coaching cliche, but it has become a mantra for the Panthers —quick puck movement followed by getting shots from the point through to Martin Brodeur—and the result has been pucks in the back of the net.
On both of Weiss' power play goals, the play started with a quick and accurate pass to the point and ended with a shot finding its way off of Brodeur and straight to the stick of Weiss who put it home in the empty net. Both Jason Garrison and Mikael Samuelsson have proven their worth in finding shooting lanes that will create favorable rebounds.
Against a penalty kill that is so skilled at taking away passing lanes, denying time and space, and clearing the front of the net, the Panthers have dominated and it is a point they will need to continue to stress as the series continues.
Also worth noting is their success on the penalty kill. Though Florida finished the regular season at under 80 percent on the kill, they have held the Devils to a 12.5 percent power play conversion rate, allowing only one power play goal so far in the series.
Stephen Weiss has never played for another team besides the Florida Panthers, who drafted him 4th overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
As has been prominently and repeatedly referenced by the in-game commentators, this means despite being an 11 year veteran of the NHL with over 600 regular season games played, Weiss has now played 2 total NHL playoff games, games 1 and 2 of this series.
He is not letting this lack of experience affect his game negatively in any way, however. Through two games he has a pair of goals and is leading Panthers forwards with 19:29 time on ice per game.
Dineen trusts him in all game situations and Weiss has contributed to the success of both Florida's power play and penalty kill units.
His faceoff percentage (40%) needs to improve in order to help Florida's puck possession, but overall Weiss has provided clutch scoring and invaluable leadership for the Panthers.
At this point, it is a tired argument.
With the current uncertainty of some southern, "non-hockey market" teams in the NHL and the recent success of the Atlanta franchise relocating to Winnipeg, there is sure to be more speculation about which team in the southern United States should move next.
Panthers fans are doing their part to make sure they demonstrate that hockey in South Florida is alive and well.
Despite mostly losing seasons in the past decade and zero playoff appearances, Florida fans are clinging to their own version of Detroit's "octopus on the ice".
Before the game, after Panthers' goals, and after the final horn, plastic rats came raining down on the ice at the BankAtlantic Center as fans celebrated the team's first playoff win in over 10 years. The last time the Panthers made the playoffs was in 1996, and then-Panther Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the locker room by one-timing it against a wall. That night he scored two goals in a Panthers win, which goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck playfully dubbed a "rat trick".
The rest, as they say, is history. Florida hockey fans have been looking for an excuse to throw more plastic rats on the ice ever since, and this year's team is finally giving them a reason.
Even though hockey fans in South Florida haven't seen playoff hockey in their rink in over a decade, they still know how to create a home-ice advantage for their team. When the series comes back to Florida you can expect it to be a hostile environment for the New Jersey Devils, with more rats and more noise.