SUNRISE, Fla. -- New Jersey rookie Adam Henrique went through a range of emotions after the puck dropped to begin Game 7 of the Devils' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with the Florida Panthers on Thursday at BankAtlantic Center.
There were nerves, excitement and, obviously, great anticipation.
But what Henrique failed to mention was the ice water that percolated throughout his veins during the most pressure-packed moment of his hockey career. The 22-year-old Calder Trophy finalist appeared perfectly at home when it mattered most.
After picking up a loose puck in Panthers end, he skated away from Dmitry Kulikov and Shawn Matthias before unleashing a wicked wrist shot from 30 feet that beat goalie Jose Theodore under the pads and give the Devils a 3-2 double-overtime victory.
The Devils won the final two games of this best-of-seven series to clinch a second-round date with the Philadelphia Flyers. The series victory was the first for New Jersey since 2007.
"It was nice to end it," Henrique said. "I felt our line was playing well and the team was playing well. We wanted to stay on our forecheck all night and create those turnovers. We talked about that the whole game and sure enough that's what happened."
Henrique ended the Devils' longest overtime game since 2003, shortly after Thursday night turned into Friday morning.
The victory, New Jersey's first in a playoff series since beating Tampa Bay five years ago, sends the Devils into the conference semifinals against Philadelphia, the team that eliminated them in the first round two years ago in a five-game wipeout.
The Panthers, making their first playoff appearance since 2000, came up short in a bid to win their first postseason series since 1996, when the third-year team got to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Colorado.
While the Devils got the winning goal from a rookie, Henrique had the chance to be the hero because of veteran goalie Martin Brodeur, who was absolutely stellar in net, turning aside 43 shots -- including 12 in the first overtime. His biggest stops came with less than two minutes left when he robbed Stephen Weiss and Scottie Upshall.
Brodeur allowed both Florida goals on third-period power plays, but he also made 17 saves in the final 20 minutes to get the game into overtime.
"You could tell the momentum was shifting for them and we took some penalties and that put us behind the eight-ball a bit," Brodeur said. "You can't do that in the playoffs … we made our own bed in the third period. But give them credit, they played hard and went to the net as hard. I think the 20 minutes they played in the third was their best period of hockey in this series."
Theodore, who returned after sitting out Game 6 with a lower-body injury, made 33 saves, including nine in the first overtime. He had no chance on Henrique's game-winner, which came off a busted play.
"Always in overtime it’s one shot away," Theodore said. "We had our chances. We missed a couple, they missed a couple. But they capitalized on their last one."
The Panthers, showing the same kind of grit as they had through the entire series, clawed their way back from a 2-0 hole in the third period with a pair of power-play goals to square the contest and send the crowd of 19,313 into a state of delirium.
Florida pulled within 2-1 at 5:02 of the third when Weiss connected off a blast from the right circle with his team skating 4-on-3. The goal ignited the team and the fans and set the tone for a scintillating final 15 minutes of regulation.
"We've battled back all year," Weiss said. "It wasn’t the prettiest start to the hockey game that we wanted, but we hung in there, drew some penalties, found a way to get back in the hockey game."
The Panthers, who held a 19-6 shot advantage in the third, evened the score when Marcel Goc pounced on a power-play rebound and snapped a shot over a fallen Brodeur at 16:32 -- 20 seconds after Marek Zidlicky was called for delay of game for flipping the puck over the glass. Sean Bergenheim took the initial shot from the top of the circle, and Goc hit a wide-open net after Brodeur made the first stop.
Despite allowing the Panthers to tie the score, Brodeur was spectacular when it mattered most and the reason the Devils even had a pulse at that stage in the game. He stopped Versteeg's uncontested rip from the left circle at 6:14 before stoning Kopecky's attempt at the right post at 7:59. Fleischmann just missed converting a 2-on-1 with 3:50 remaining in regulation and Versteeg's deft backhander with 17.6 seconds left was snapped up by Brodeur.
"Marty was outstanding, especially in the first overtime and late in the third," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer, who was coaching against the team that fired him a year ago. "We were on our heels and they grabbed momentum, and he was our best player … he had to be or we don't win."
In the opening minutes of overtime, he denied John Madden twice and Marco Sturm once in rapid succession during a highlight-reel sequence that was vintage Brodeur.
"He gives us a chance every night; he was solid once again," Henrique said. "He's played in a lot of big games, but if not for him, we may not be in this position."
Before the third period, it looked like the Devils would breeze to victory.
Stephen Gionta's goal 9:15 into the second, a backhanded rebound into a half-empty net, gave the Devils a 2-0 edge. The visitors played perhaps their best period of playoff hockey in the second, completely frustrating the Panthers in the neutral zone and outshooting them, 11-2.
Realizing his team needed some sort of spark, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen switched up his lines in the third period, putting Upshall alongside Weiss and Versteeg on the top line and Tomas Fleischmann with Shawn Matthias and Tomas Kopecky on the second. The changes certainly seemed to ignite the home team.
In fact, the Panthers even had a goal called back 1:50 into the third when referee Dan O'Rourke waved off Fleischmann's jam in the slot when Matthias was whistled for goalie interference. They killed the penalty and then scored their eighth and ninth power-play goals to pull even.
"When you go to double overtime in Game 7, there’s not much wiggle room," Dineen said. "Obviously, we didn’t like our start again in the game. We saw a little bit of the true identity of the Panthers and what we call Panthers hockey toward the end. There was a lot of passion and emotion and we fed off the crowd. It made for a very enthusiastic evening that didn’t end well."
The Devils opened a 1-0 lead 1:29 into the first when Henrique scored the first playoff goal of his career off a deflection of a point shot from Anton Volchenkov. David Clarkson fed Volchenkov at the left point before the big Russian ripped a shot that Henrique tipped past Theodore.
In the end, DeBoer was just glad to be advancing.
“It's exhausting, but a fitting end to the series," DeBoer said. "I’m obviously glad we won but both teams battled five periods tonight. It was 7 1/2 games, and I'm glad to come out on the right side of it. Full marks to Florida, for the fight they put up and how they played in the series. I thought they were very, very good.”
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
1 - 0 NJD
2 - 0 NJD
2 - 1 NJD
2 - 2 Tie
1st OT Period
2nd OT Period
3 - 2 NJD
Interference on goalkeeper