Keys to Devils-Panthers Game 7

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What? You didn't know the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers are set to meet tonight in a decisive Game 7?

Ah, don't be too hard on yourself. You aren't alone. This is the first round series that gets no respect.

While was promoting previews of second-round games this weekend between Los Angeles and St. Louis, and Nashville and Phoenix, you had to dig down deep to find anything on the still ongoing series in Sunrise, Fla.

NBC, the peacock network that never misses a chance to crow that it is showing every game of these playoffs, has seen fit to let this series slide into the relative obscurity of the NHL Network instead of bumping a pair of documentaries that are repeating on CNBC.

Granted, it's a match-up of two low-wattage teams that lacks a compelling history, headline generating nastiness, or the marquee names found in some other series. Shoot, even fans in Florida need a scorecard to keep track of a roster that features 15 players who weren't with the Panthers last season.

So don't feel bad if this is the first you're hearing of it. But while your attention has been focused on shinier objects for the past 10 days, you've missed a compelling series filled with shocking lead swings, goalie roulette, gritty battles and fantastic finishes.

No reason to expect anything less from Game 7.

Here's a look at some of the keys to this contest, and who appears to have the edge on advancing to the Eastern Conference semis:

Momentum: New Jersey

The final score from Game 6 -- a 3-2 win in overtime for the Devils -- doesn't begin to hint at how dominant New Jersey was on Tuesday night. The Devils spent so much time on the attack in Florida's zone that they could have used it as a forwarding address. They outshot the Panthers 42-16, including 6-3 in OT.

The Devils also got their best effort yet from the top line of Travis Zajac, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. The trio finally seemed to recapture the old chemistry that was seen only in flashes through the early stages of the series. No surprise then that it was Zajac who scored the winner on a nifty set-up from Kovalchuk. If they can keep up that energy, the Devils will be tough to stop.

And Florida? It's tough to find a bright side when you're outshot by almost 3 to 1 and show about as much life as Bernie Lomax in one of his late-80s comedies. But the Panthers were at least able to keep New Jersey to the outside while the Devils were setting up camp in Florida's zone, and they limited the number of high-end scoring chances to a level that goalie Scott Clemmensen almost handled.

It might be that Florida coach Kevin Dineen sold his team on the virtues of the ol' rope-a-dope as a game plan. If that's the case, it almost worked. But when the Panthers hung tight and found the game still there to be won late, they couldn't bear down and find the extra gear they hadn't used all night. If they hope to slow the Devils on Thursday, they need to push the desperation button a little sooner. Like, at 8:38 PM, EDT.

Goaltending: New Jersey

No, Martin Brodeur isn't the same player he was when he shut out the Ducks to clinch the 2003 Stanley Cup. And he's sure not the guy who was helpless on his knees in 1994 as Stephane Matteau's wraparound goal turned Howie Rose into the voice of New Jersey's worst nightmares.

Still, this is Brodeur's tenth Game 7 appearance. He's won five of them, but what matters more here is his calming presence, the certainty of his teammates that comes from knowing he can weather the storm. He's capable of winning the game on his own.

Of course, Jose Theodore is capable of winning it, too. The veteran netminder, who was a late scratch from Game 6 after he shut out the Devils in Game 5, gives the Panthers their best chance of sealing the deal. He's had success in prior Game 7s, twice beating the Bruins, including a 2-0 shutout in Boston in 2004. That's a long time ago, but Theodore at least has traveled down this road before. He felt good after a hard workout on Wednesday and was looking forward to starting. If he can't go, it'll be up to Clemmensen, who lost his two starts in the series partly because he gave up softies in each. Early in a series, you might be able to get away with one. Not in a Game 7.

Second period: Florida

Why does this matter? The middle frame challenges teams by forcing them to make defensive player changes from a greater distance than in the first and third. The Cats have capitalized on some awkward or ill-timed substitutions by the Devils and have dominated the period as a result, outscoring New Jersey 9-2. Remember, both Florida tallies in Tuesday's Game 6 loss came during the second period, including Sean Bergenheim's goal that knotted the contest at two after a poor change by the Devils led to the odd-man rush.

Special teams: Florida

There should be a couple of changes to Florida's lineup. Most critical: Jason Garrison, who missed the previous three contests, will reportedly be a game-time decision. Unless the mysterious lower-body injury that sent him to the sidelines involved the actual disappearance of both legs, expect him to report for duty...and expect him to be an impact player. Virtually unknown outside of south Florida, Garrison finished third among all blueliners with 16 goals during the regular season. A team-leading nine of those bombs came with the extra man. Adding his big shot and sharp decision-making to the power play could tilt the game in favor of the Panthers, who lit up New Jersey's vaunted penalty kill in the early going, but went just 1-for-14 with Garrison in the press box.

The first goal: New Jersey

The need for a fast start might be the hoariest of playoff cliches, but it holds true of late for Game 7s.

Last year, seven series went to a seventh game, and all were won by the team that scored first. And in case you missed last night's action, Matt Hendricks opened the scoring on the way to a 2-1 clincher for the Washington Capitals, making it eight straight.

The Devils have struck first in four of the first six games, including just 33 seconds into Game 3. If they can keep it rolling from Game 6, they'll be in good shape.

The rats: Florida

Unless New Jersey's fans buy them all first. But they'll have to get them somewhere other than at BankAtlantic Center, which has stopped selling them in order to limit the rain of plastic rodents out of fear they'll cost the home team a delay of game penalty at a particularly inopportune time if a cleanup is needed.

Bottom line, this could go either way...and you wouldn't want to miss that.