NEWARK, N.J. -- The laws of physics can explain just about everything about life on Earth. It can explain why a stone falls faster than a feather, why lightning strikes, why snow falls. So, of course, physics can shed light on what happens on 16,327 square feet of ice.
In what has become a cliché of playoff hockey, Tuesday night's game between New Jersey and Florida, a 4-3 Panthers win that gave them the 2-1 series advantage, came down to a keen understanding of momentum.
It's not scientifically proven, like, say, the actual laws of physics, but players and coaches will swear that hockey momentum exists. In a fluid game, things are always moving one way or the other (with the exception of that November game between the Flyers and Lightning, where the puck stopped there). The swings can be subtle, or, in the case of this Devils-Panthers series, they can be blatant.
"Definitely [you can feel the shifts] in a playoff game," Panthers winger Kris Versteeg said. "In a regular season game, you can at times feel it, but in a playoff game, it's almost like a landslide comes on you."
In Game 1, the Devils roared out of the gate, scoring three first-period goals on 26 shots, overwhelming the Panthers in their first postseason appearance since 2000. Florida answered with two straight in the second period. but it wasn't enough. In Game 2, the roles reversed as the Panthers built a 3-0 lead before watching the Devils almost come back with a pair of goals early in the third.
Again, on Thursday, New Jersey buzzed early in Game 3, scoring three goals in the first 6 minutes, 16 seconds, controlling the puck so completely that it limited Florida to just one shot in the first 12 minutes. But as Newton's first law of motion suggests, an object will keep moving until acted upon by another force, and in the Devils' case, that other force was the Panthers power play. With speedy puck movement, Florida has been able to find room and see shooting lanes to New Jersey's net. Of their six power-play goals this postseason, four have come from more than 23 feet out.
The Devils, which boasted the league's best penalty kill during the regular season and even set a modern-day NHL record of 89.6 percent success, have struggled mightily this postseason. Coming into Game 3, they had allowed three goals on seven opportunities, and when they went a man down late in the first when forward Patrik Elias took an undisciplined unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, they again gave up a goal. Florida winger Scottie Upshall shot the puck from the red line at Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. He blockered it down into the left circle for Sean Bergenheim, who fired a shot to the far side for his second goal of the postseason. With eight seconds left in the first, on the power play again, the Panthers' Jason Garrison fired a point shot that found the back of the net.
"When we came in here up 3-2, the mentality was as if we were down 3-2," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "We were still in a great position. We still had a one-goal lead in our rink. But for whatever reason, we were really down on ourselves coming into intermission. That's the way the playoffs are going to be. You can't afford to do that."
The Panthers scored again when another point shot -- this one by Mike Weaver -- passed Brodeur 2:18 into the second. New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer pulled the 20-year veteran and replaced him with Johan Hedberg. Brodeur, who hasn't been pulled from a playoff game at home since 1995, gave up three goals on 12 shots; Florida's starter, Jose Theodore, who gave up three early, had been pulled in favor of former Devil Scott Clemmensen, who earned his fifth career win over New Jersey with 19 saves on 19 shots.
The Panthers power play went 3-for-3 on the evening when defenseman Brian Campbell fired a shot from the right circle that eked in under Hedberg's blocker arm at 6:34 in the second. For the second straight game, it was their own penalty kill that murdered the Devils' chances and their spirit.
"We've got to learn to, as a group, play in that situation," DeBoer said, "and it starts with not taking penalties. We've been burned in two games now, and their power play has been the difference."
The loss adds to a list of Devils recent postseason shortcomings at home. The playoff memories that accompany the Prudential Center have been more haunting than happy. Since the building opened in 2007, the Devils have won just three games in front of their fans -- at least most of their fans. When New Jersey opened the playoffs against the Rangers in 2008, the Prudential Center was flooded with Blueshirts. In 2010, facing the Flyers, the Devils saw Philadelphians make the 90-mile trip up the Turnpike to infiltrate Newark. "Carolina [in 2009], I thought, was a great series in this building," Brodeur said before Tuesday's game. "Until Game 7 ..."
That do-or-die meeting memorably ended with the Hurricanes scoring two goals in the game's final two minutes to take the series -- the Shock at the Rock.
"We've never really got a chance to get our fans a nice gift, play well and dominate games to really get them into it," Brodeur said. "I think people still have [recent playoff failures] in their memory a little bit. We've got to change that a little bit."
"We've got to start winning at home in the postseason," Parise said with a sigh. "We can be upset about this for awhile, but now Game 4 is huge for us. We've got to win that one."