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'You always imagine it's Game 7': Panthers, Devils set for 1 game to decide series

Florida Panthers' Stephen Weiss, right, celebrates a goal scored by Kris Versteeg as New Jersey Devils' Bryce Salvador skates by during the second period of Game 6 of a first-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Florida Panthers' Stephen Weiss, right, celebrates a goal scored by Kris Versteeg as New Jersey Devils' Bryce Salvador skates by during the second period of Game 6 of a first-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

SUNRISE, Fla. - The numbers could not be more even: Three wins apiece, 15 goals per team.

As such, the first six games of the Florida-New Jersey matchup decided nothing.

Welcome to Game 7.

Looking for their first series victory in 16 years, the Panthers will have home ice Thursday night for the ultimate game of their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Devils, who forced the winner-take-all matchup with a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 6. It's only the second Game 7 in franchise history for Florida, which won one of these in Pittsburgh in the 1996 East finals.

"It's do or die," Panthers goalie Jose Theodore said Wednesday. "These are the kind of games you want to be part of. I mean, everybody when you're a kid and you play hockey, you always imagine that it's Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. So obviously it's a game everybody wants to be part of and help the team win."

Theodore did not play in Game 6 because of an unspecified injury. He worked out at the Panthers' practice facility Wednesday, taking shots from a few teammates for about 35 minutes, saying afterward that he felt better than he did the day before. It's common for Florida—which started Scott Clemmensen in Game 5—to not reveal who's starting until game day, but by his standards, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen showed his hand Wednesday.

"Theo has been our go-to guy," Dineen said after watching a few minutes of Theodore's workout. "And if he's available, he'll be the one running with it."

The sense in the Florida dressing room Wednesday was that being at home for Game 7 is a huge boost, given how much energy the team says it gets from its fans.

Perspectives seemed much different 1,250 miles to the north.

Before leaving for their flight to South Florida, the Devils talked about how going on the road for the final game of a series can minimize distractions, though there is one they cannot ignore. A New Jersey loss on Thursday could usher in the end of goaltender Martin Brodeur's career, because he'll be a free agent this summer and will be 40 on May 6.

"I plan on coming back," Brodeur said. "It's a decision that we'll make later on. I know a lot of people have asked me about it being my last game. You never know. I'm just going to enjoy the moment. It's Game 7. It's why we all play hockey."

The Devils outshot Florida 42-16 in Game 6, not getting the winner until Travis Zajac got a shot past Clemmensen 5:39 into overtime. The Panthers had a chance at the other end to send New Jersey into summer seconds earlier, Brodeur going down while the puck was dangerously loose a few feet away, before Zajac and a couple other teammates found a way to clear and start what became the winning rush.

Zajac ran to the corner of the ice, mobbed by teammates. By Wednesday afternoon, he was calm again.

"Winning Game 7 would be nicer," Zajac said. "That's all that's on our minds now. It was definitely rewarding to score the goal, but it means nothing if we don't win Game 7. We've played six games against them now. We know what is going to work and what doesn't."

The Devils finished with 102 points this year, eight more than Florida, which got home-ice by virtue of winning the Southeast Division title on the final day of the regular season. To advance, New Jersey will have to find a way to finish off its first two-game post-season winning streak since 2007.

"When you finish seven or eight points ahead in the standings of the team you have to play in Game 7 and that game is in their building, that's hard to swallow," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "But we understand and we'll be ready."

So it's the first time the Florida sweater has been in one of these games since the first Clinton administration.

That doesn't mean those who'll wear that sweater are lacking for experience in these sort of pressure-cookers.

Theodore had a Game 7 shutout for Montreal over Boston in 2004. Defenceman Ed Jovanovski, whose playoff beard is flecked with grey now, was a rookie in Florida's other one in 1996. Florida centre John Madden played in a half-dozen of these for New Jersey, including a 2009 loss that was his last game with the Devils.

And everyone in the room has seen plenty of them, like forward Kris Versteeg, who said his favourite Game 7 memory was watching Colorado's Joe Sakic opt not to raise the Stanley Cup first in 2001—a captain's tradition—and instead hand it off to the legendary Raymond Bourque, who spent 22 years chasing his title.

By the way, who lost that game Versteeg referenced? That would be the Devils.

"Play to win. Don't play to lose," Madden said when asked what advice he'd give to Game 7 first-timers. "Don't go out there clenching your sticks thinking about making a mistake. Just go out there and want to be the guy who makes a difference in every shift."

Florida thought it let a chance slip away in Game 6. Versteeg said frustration won't carry over to Game 7.

"We haven't made it easy on ourselves all season long, so why now?" Versteeg asked. "We're excited about this."

___

Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

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