SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Adam Henrique’s first Game 7 was one he’ll never forget.
The rookie scored his second goal of the game at 3:47 of the second overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers early Friday.
He skated out of the right circle and into the slot, getting goalie Jose Theodore to guess wrong. It sent New Jersey to Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference semifinal opener Sunday, and the resurgent Panthers home for the summer.
“Got a pretty good bounce,” Henrique said. “Found myself alone and tried to get it on net.”
Just like that, the Devils were winners of a postseason series for the first time since 2007. And with the game ending in the early hours of April 27, it marked the 20th anniversary of Martin Brodeur’s first postseason appearance in goal for New Jersey.
Henrique doesn’t remember Brodeur’s debut. After all, he was only 2. But this night, that’ll be unforgettable.
“Pretty cool, I guess,” said Brodeur, who stopped 43 shots.
Stephen Gionta also scored in regulation for New Jersey, which wasted a 2-0 lead in the third period.
Stephen Weiss and Marcel Goc scored third-period goals for the Panthers, and Theodore made 33 saves. The Panthers made a surprising run to the Southeast Division title this season, earning their first postseason berth in 12 years.
“This is not where the hockey people predicted us to be at the start of the year,” Weiss said. “We did some good things. We’re obviously disappointed not being able to move on. It’s been a fun year. It’s been a fun playoff in front of our fans.”
The Panthers thought they were on the board 1:50 into the third period when Mike Weaver’s shot from the right point got past Brodeur. Shawn Matthias was whistled for goaltender interference, nullifying the goal — and further firing up the already desperate Panthers.
“Yeah, they probably missed one on that one,” Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. “But what are you going to do?”
Weiss cut the lead in half at 5:02 of the third, burying a one-timer from the right circle after a pass from Brian Campbell. The equalizer nearly came 3 minutes later, when Weiss had another shot blocked, Scottie Upshall nearly got his stick on the rebound — the Devils’ Andy Greene tied him up just enough to thwart that chance — and Kris Versteeg’s try was batted away.
Didn’t matter. The Panthers kept coming. And with Marek Zidlicky in the penalty box for a delay of game call, Florida got the franchise’s biggest goal in 16 years.
Shawn Bergenheim made a nifty move to get free for a shot that Brodeur stopped. The rebound rolled left, nearly on the goal line, and Goc knocked it home from an extremely tough angle to tie it at 2 with 3:28 left.
And to overtime they went.
“Exhausting,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “A fitting end to the series.”
The Devils and Panthers played 11 games this season. New Jersey won six, Florida won five, and the Devils outscored the Panthers 29-28.
As close as could be, all the way to the end.
“Just a bounce here or there,” Versteeg said. “That’s what happens.”
The first 2 minutes of regulation — probably long forgotten by the time the game ended — went about as badly as could be for Florida, which quickly found itself down both a goal and a center.
Henrique opened the scoring when he tipped the puck past Theodore to get New Jersey on the board and silence an anxious crowd. Anton Volchenkov camped out at the left point, waited for a pass from behind the net to bounce off the boards and carom his way, then fired a one-timer that Henrique — considered by many to be the league’s best rookie — directed into the net.
A half-minute later, things got worse for Florida.
Panthers center John Madden and winger Tomas Kopecky collided near center ice, and Madden took the brunt of the big hit. He writhed in agony for several seconds before trying to crawl to the Florida bench, the blood pouring from his face leaving a blotchy red trail along the ice. Two workers emerged to scrape up the mess.
New Jersey dominated the opening minutes, taking eight of the first 10 shots. Eventually, the Panthers settled down — getting 10 shots at Brodeur in the final 10-plus minutes of the first period, yet still heading into the first intermission trailing 1-0.
“They got one lucky tip,” Kopecky said in a televised interview between periods. “You know, we weren’t in a lane and we were kind of cruising around in our zone and it ended up in our net.”
Lucky or not, it was enough to get the Devils going.
And fittingly, Henrique not only got his team started, but then he finished the job.
“I think I blacked out when I heard the thud of the back of the net,” Henrique said. “It was a great feeling.”
Greater still for Brodeur, who still has a chance at his fourth Stanley Cup. Brodeur was no fan in this series of Florida’s tradition of tossing toy rats on the ice to celebrate. He was the last Devils player to leave the ice, and the last thing he did before joining the dressing-room celebration was to scoop up one of the plastic critters with his stick and send it skyward.
“Feels pretty good,” Brodeur said. “For a day. And after that, we have to face the Flyers.”
NOTES: The Devils and Flyers split six meetings this season. It’ll be the fifth time in the Brodeur era that the teams have met in the playoffs; Philadelphia won in 2004 and 2010, while New Jersey prevailed on their way to Cup titles in 1995 and 2000. … Florida had as many broken sticks — two — as shots in the second period. … Madden returned to the ice about 13 minutes after needing to leave following the collision with Kopecky.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)