SUNRISE, Fla. - After spending most of the previous two games watching from the bench, Florida's Jose Theodore sent the New Jersey Devils to the brink of elimination.
Theodore made 30 saves for his second post-season shutout, Kris Versteeg scored a goal and used a burst of speed to set up another, and the Panthers moved a win away from their first series triumph in 16 years with a 3-0 victory over the Devils on Saturday night.
Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky also scored for Florida, which leads the Eastern Conference first-round series 3-2. The Panthers' last series victory came in the 1996 East finals, and they'll have two chances to snap that drought.
"A huge win, obviously," Theodore said. "I keep saying this: The next game is always the biggest in the playoffs."
Martin Brodeur made 30 saves for New Jersey, which hosts a win-or-else Game 6 on Tuesday night. If necessary, Game 7 is at Florida on Thursday night.
"They did a lot of things better than we did tonight," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "It was a good lesson for us. The fourth game is always the toughest to win and we're going to make it as tough as possible."
New Jersey forward Ilya Kovalchuk said after Game 4 that he thought Saturday's outcome would decide the series.
"Nobody said it was going to be easy," Kovalchuk said.
Here's one that few hockey fans might have expected a few weeks ago: Of the East's top three seeds, the Panthers are in the best position.
The top-seeded New York Rangers trail their series with Ottawa 3-2. The reigning Stanley Cup champion and No. 2 seed Boston Bruins trail Washington 3-2. The Panthers? One win from the second round.
"There's a lot of wins left to get," Panthers defenceman Brian Campbell said.
Clinging to a one-goal lead for more than half the game, Florida had plenty of chances for the insurance score. It came with 6:43 left — and was earned.
With the sellout crowd already roaring as Upshall and Shawn Matthias battled to fight the puck up the boards and eventually clear it into the New Jersey zone, Brodeur skated around his net to make a play. On a forecheck, Versteeg beat Brodeur to the puck, sending it in front for Upshall, who had empty net to shoot at and give Florida a 2-0 lead.
"I saw the puck kind of slow-rolling," Versteeg said. "I don't know if he kind of double-guessed himself whether he could get it or not. But obviously, it was a great finish by Uppy."
From there, red towels waved, people stomping and clapping in unison, a scene that Panthers fans haven't enjoyed often over the past decade.
Theodore gave them plenty to celebrate.
He shut the door, and when Brodeur got to the bench with 2:14 left and the Devils down by two, Theodore never got rattled, either. New Jersey had a 6-on-4 when Erik Gudbranson was called for roughing with 2:08 left, but never solved Theodore.
"We didn't challenge him enough," Devils forward Zach Parise said. "He got real lucky on a lot of them."
The Devils had the best penalty-killing percentage in the NHL's modern era this season, thwarting power plays 89.6 per cent of the time. But in the series, Florida has thrived when it has the extra skater on the ice.
And the trend continued.
On a play that started with a faceoff win — another Florida strength over large stretches of this series — Stephen Weiss got the puck between the circles, then sent a sharp pass to the left corner of the rink to Versteeg, who fired a one-timer by Brodeur for a 1-0 lead at exactly 4:00 of the second period.
It was Florida's first goal in nearly two full games, a span of 117 minutes, 26 seconds.
Teams had gone 7 for 77 on the power play against New Jersey to close the regular season. After Versteeg's goal, the Panthers were 7 for 17 in the series with the man advantage.
Turns out, the way Theodore was playing, Florida only needed one goal anyway.
"I just think we got outworked today," New Jersey's Travis Zajac said. "We didn't win enough battles to create scoring chances."
Though Dineen didn't blame Scott Clemmensen for the 4-0 loss at New Jersey on Thursday night, it was little surprise he went back to Theodore — the No. 1 goalie option in Florida this season — for Game 5. Theodore was pulled after giving up three goals in the first 6:16 of Game 3, one where Clemmensen was perfect in relief and Florida eventually won 4-3.
If anyone wondered if Theodore was up to the task, he tried to provide the answer in the early going.
Patrik Elias had a chance to stuff in the rebound of his own blocked shot with 7:20 left in the opening period, only to have Theodore kick it aside. Two minutes later, Zajac tried to score from down low, with Theodore again holding his ground. And with Florida caught in a change with 4 minutes left, Stephen Gionta had a clear shot from the top of the right circle, which Theodore smothered.
That set the trend for the night.
"For me, that's Theo," Dineen said. "That's what I expected from him."
NOTES: Theodore's only other playoff shutout was April 19, 2004, 2-0 for Montreal at Boston. ... The teams combined for one shot in the first 6 1/2 minutes. ... Florida has outscored New Jersey 7-1 in second periods of the series. ... With defencemen Jason Garrison and Keaton Ellerby out with injuries, the Panthers called up D Tyson Strachan from San Antonio of the AHL for the game.