If hockey games ended after 20 minutes, the New Jersey Devils would be flying home with a three game win streak.
But hockey games last 60 minutes, and the Devils learned that the hard way tonight. The Florida Panthers came from behind to beat New Jersey, 4-3, tonight at the BankAtlantic Center in Florida.
New Jersey jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period. Ilya Kovalchuk opened the scoring, netting his fourth of the season at 8:17 of the opening period. Henrik Tallinder fired a shot from the slot that deflected off of Dmitry Kulikov. The puck bounced right to Kovalchuk's stick, and the left-winger slid it into the open net for the goal.
Petr Sykora stretched the lead to 2-0 at 9:26 of the period. Adam Larsson took a shot from the right point that was deflected in front of the net. Sykora collected the loose puck and sent a backhanded shot past Jose Theodore for his fourth goal of the season.
Dainius Zubrus extended the lead to 3-0 at 11:49 of the opening frame. Patrik Elias and Zubrus moved into the Panthers zone on a 2-on-1. Elias faked a shot and threaded a pass through two defenders to Zubrus, who tapped the puck into an open net for his sixth goal of the season.
A three-goal lead is one of the most dangerous in hockey, and it bit the Devils. Kris Versteeg helped chip away at their lead, netting two goals in the second period.
Versteeg scored the Panthers first goal at 5:28 of the middle frame. Stephen Weiss found a loose puck in the scrum, pushing it over to Versteeg at the left side of the net. Versteeg's shot beat Martin Brodeur to the short side for his 10th goal of the season.
Versteeg pulled the Panthers within one at 10:40 of the period. Brodeur couldn't handle a point shot from Jason Garrison, leaving a rebound to his left side. Versteeg fired a shot off the right post, but the puck deflected off of Mark Fayne and into the net.
Weiss scored a goal of his own, tying the game at three at 9:12 of the third period. With the Panthers shorthanded, Mike Weaver blocked a shot attempt from Elias. Garrison grabbed the puck and sent Weiss into the zone all alone. He put the puck past Brodeur for his eighth goal of the season.
It was the fourth shorthanded goal New Jersey allowed this season, putting them into a tie for the league lead.
Tomas Fleischmann scored the game-winner, putting a shot past Brodeur at 17:57 to complete the comeback win. It was only the second time in franchise history Florida overcame a three-goal deficit to win a game. The first happened in 2010, when the Panthers came back from three goals down to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-4.
The Devils ended their road trip on a sour note. Instead of coming home 4-1-0, the team now heads back to New Jersey with a disappointing loss to overcome.
"That would be a great road trip," Elias told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record about finishing 4-1-0. "That team (Florida) is beatable, no questions. We, obviously, (gave) it away this win by our mistakes. They had one line. That's all."
DeBoer, who admitted he had some personal motivation to win this game, felt disappointment after the loss.
"It's disappointing," the coach told Gulitti. "I think we stopped playing after the 3-0 lead, so it was a good lesson learned and a credit to them. They didn't stop and we probably got what we deserved at the end."