SUNRISE, Fla. - When the Florida Panthers last skated on post-season ice, they were swept away by Martin Brodeur.
A dozen years, eight coaches and a couple hundred players later, the Panthers are finally back in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And even though the Florida franchise fortunes seem to finally be changing, maybe it's fitting that Brodeur—the NHL's winningest active playoff goalie by far—will again be the guy at the other end of the rink.
New Jersey and Florida play Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series on Friday night. There's a slew of subplots adding intrigue to this series, but the reality is that if the Panthers are going to advance, they'll have to do what they couldn't in 2000—find a way to beat a goalie who has hoisted the Stanley Cup three times, owns two Olympic gold medals and has just about every record imaginable at his position.
"He's arguably one of the best playoff goalies ever," Panthers centre Stephen Weiss said. "Come playoff time, that's when he's usually at his best. So we'll have to get a lot of people in front of him so he can't see the puck and not try to show him too much respect. We've got to get in his face and make life difficult for him."
Brodeur has 99 playoff wins in his career. The Panthers, as a franchise, have 13.
But this year, coming off the first division title in team history, not only is Florida in the tournament, but it has home-ice for at least the first round. And while this notion of playoff hockey may seem new to Florida fans, there's no shortage of Panthers with big-time playoff experience, a list including Mikael Samuelsson, John Madden, Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski—part of the Panthers run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996—and Brian Campbell.
"We're not green by any means," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
Brodeur stopped 98 of the 104 shots he saw when the Devils and Panthers last met in the 2000 playoffs, a sweep that kickstarted New Jersey's second run to a Stanley Cup, adding to the title claimed in 1995 and preceding another in 2003. The Devils haven't been past the second round since, even though they've topped the 100-point mark in the standings six times in the span, including this season.
"I am looking forward to the feeling of being in the playoffs," said Brodeur, who spent some last year's post-season in Florida as well—heading south after the Devils failed to make the playoffs in 2011. "I think everybody is in this locker room. You play hockey to get in the playoffs and the chance to win the Stanley Cup, so when that is taken away from you, you are more eager to get back."
There's all sorts of familiarity between the teams.
Start with the Devils' bench, where Pete DeBoer coached the team to 48 wins this season, though that was only good enough for fourth in the stacked Atlantic Division. DeBoer spent the previous three seasons in Florida, almost making the playoffs in his debut year, then seeing the team struggle big-time in his last two.
"It's nice to go back, but we did our pre-scout meeting on Florida and out of the 12 forwards in their starting lineup potentially on Friday, I coached two of them and that was a year ago," DeBoer said. "So, it's a different team, different time and we've moved on."
Much like Brodeur, Madden was a key part of past Devils' Stanley Cup-winning teams. Florida is Madden's third club in three seasons since leaving New Jersey but he still has plenty of friends in the Devils' locker room.
He takes summer vacations with some of them to this day.
"He's got three Stanley Cup rings, so obviously, I don't need to speak about his resume," said Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen, Brodeur's former backup in New Jersey. "It speaks for itself. But he's a veteran guy who's played a long time in this league and there's a reason why he's played a long time in this league. Very smart player on both ends of the ice. Very responsible. The Cup rings. It's an attitude that he brings as well."
Clemmensen himself may play a big role in this series. Dineen hasn't said who will start in net for Florida, a decision that he acknowledged would be tough between Jose Theodore—the No. 1 goalie for much of the season—and Clemmensen, who's been stellar over the last month.
"I think it's going to be a heck of a series," DeBoer said. "You look at them and they have undervalued depth. You look at their fourth line and they've got veteran Stanley Cup winners throughout their lineup. They've gotten great goaltending from both guys all year. It's going to be a real tough test for us."
With Brodeur in net, it'll almost certainly be a tough test for the Panthers as well.
Of the 16 playoff teams, Florida's 203 goals this season was the second-lowest, topping only Los Angeles' 194. The Panthers were outscored by 24 goals this season, making them the first NHL division winner to have a negative goal differential since Detroit in 1988-89 and the first to be outscored by that kind of margin since Chicago in 1978-79.
No big deal, the Panthers say. None of those stats matter now that second season is finally here.
"I'm excited," Versteeg said. "We get to play against a team with a lot of great players on it, and we get a chance to prove everyone wrong."
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan contributed to this story.
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