One shot was all it took—mainly because 39 of the first 41 shots didn't do it.
Travis Zajac’s goal 5:39 into overtime on Tuesday night in Newark lifted the New Jersey Devils to a 3-2 win over the visiting Florida Panthers and into seventh heaven—or at least a seventh and deciding game on Thursday evening in Sunrise, Fla.
New Jersey, which had been eliminated at home in the playoffs each spring from 2007 to 2011, could have had it happen again after squandering a 2-0 lead in the second period. Once Steve Bernier and Ilya Kovalchuk (power-play goal) had staked the Devils to a two-goal advantage just over four minutes into the second stanza, things started to unravel for the home side in the span of several opposing shots.
First, it was Kris Versteeg banking a shot home off a Devil skate in front at 7:05, after Stephen Weiss went to round the net and set up Versteeg in front. Less than six minutes later, Sean Bergenheim picked up a loose puck just behind the right post of the Devils' goal and went backhand-to-forehand to tie the contest.
The Devils continued to out-shoot the Panthers by nearly a three-to-one margin, as the score remained knotted throughout the third period, and held a 36-13 shot advantage at the end of regulation. As sudden death loomed, however, everyone inside a sold-out Prudential Center knew that all it would take was one well-placed (or lucky) Florida shot to end the Devils’ season.
The Panthers had a chance to end it when Weiss took off down the left side on a two-on-one early in the extra session, but ultimately fired wide after Zach Parise pursued Weiss and harassed him before he could size up his shot.
It ended soon after.
Zajac picked up a rebound that goaltender Martin Brodeur left near the Devils' net, skated up the right wing and sent a pass across the neutral zone to Parise. The puck deflected off Kovalchuk and behind Parise, but the Devils' captain managed to turn and bank the puck off the boards to Kovalchuk.
New Jersey’s top goal-scorer then skated left to right across the Florida blue line, pulling a defenseman towards him, before he slid the puck to a more-or-less open Zajac in the left circle. The former University of North Dakota star skated straight in and fired a low shot past former New Jersey teammate Scott Clemmensen to extend the Devils' season at least one more contest.
"We're a team that likes to have the puck down low," said Zajac, who missed most of the season with Achilles woes, afterwards in a postgame interview on MSG Plus.
The Panthers, who got 39 stops from Clemmensen, missed an opportunity to clinch their first playoff series since 1996. The Devils, who got 14 stops from Brodeur for his 102nd career playoff victory, last won a playoff series themselves in 2007. New Jersey swept Florida back in 2000 in the team's only previous postseason meeting en route to its second-ever Stanley Cup title.
Game 7 on Thursday night at BankAtlantic Center will be one of three deciding games this week that will close out the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, all of them in the Eastern Conference. Washington visits defending Stanley Cup champion Boston tomorrow night, while Thursday will also see Ottawa drop in on the top-seeded New York Rangers.
Thanks to Zajac's overtime shot, the Devils will have their own shot at moving on.
"We played a patient game and didn't give up too much," he added. "We're gonna have to duplicate that for Game 7."