Theodore slams the door on Devils

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The way Jose Theodore sees it, what matters most at this time of year is simply being involved.

In the playoffs, that is, and certainly in the games themselves. For the Florida Panthers veteran goaltender, the latter hasn't necessarily been a given in this postseason, despite his de facto status all season as the team's No. 1 and efforts thus far in the playoffs that have, in the minds of his coach and teammates, been worthy of praise.

Even so, Theodore wasn't a lock to start the pivotal Game 5 here after backing up Scott Clemmensen in Game 4. But after the latest in a series of what he describes as "gut checks," coach Kevin Dineen decided to go with Theodore between the pipes -- and the veteran responded with a solid 30-save performance and his second career playoff shutout, leading Florida to a 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils and a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

"I think it's been a great playoff week," Theodore said when asked if the uncertainty about his playing status was a challenge. "I mean, the playoffs, it's really fun being part [of] that situation, being part of it and not looking in from [the] outside, especially in a big game like this.

"For me, I always say that in the playoffs, the next game is the biggest one, and we showed that tonight. We played 60 minutes and we didn't have the letdown we had the last couple of games."

Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Panthers got better as the game wore on. After Theodore matched counterpart Martin Brodeur with 11 saves in a scoreless and cautiously played opening period, the Panthers began taking control by using their strong forecheck to create waves of pressure in the Devils end. And, perhaps most important, by making New Jersey stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise non-factors.

"I think this was a game where we all decided to put our heads down, sacrificing and working as hard as we could," said Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell. "It was our best game of the series."

Clearly. Florida kept New Jersey backpedaling in the second period and the Panthers' speed forced the Devils into penalties. Ultimately that proved to be the visitors' undoing as Kris Versteeg netted what proved to be the winner on a power play four minutes into the second period.

"It was good that we got that one early," Versteeg said. "Our power play has been good all year, and we knew we had to take advantage of the chances we had."

It was the seventh goal Florida has scored with the man advantage in this series, against what was the league's best regular-season penalty-killing team, albeit their only conversion on six tries in this game.

"Obviously we knew we had to stay out of the box as much as possible, but we don't expect to go rest of the series not killing penalties, that's not going to happen," Devils forward Travis Zajac said. "Some of those were not the greatest calls and we killed those off and had a chance to change the momentum. We had a chance to turn some momentum, but I don't know if we pushed hard enough. We just got outworked."

If there was any doubt of that, it ended when the Panthers beat the Devils in several one-on-one battles in a sequence that resulted in Florida's second goal with less than seven minutes remaining in the third period.

Panthers center Shawn Mattias prevented Kovalchuk from keeping the puck in at the Panthers blueline, then outhustled defenseman Marek Zidlicky to chip the puck in deep. Versteeg stole the puck from Brodeur and flipped it back to Scottie Upshall, who deposited it into the empty net for a backbreaking goal.

"I went to play the puck in the trapezoid and the puck started slowing down, kind of bobbling," said Brodeur, who was on the bench when Tomas Kopecky rounded out the scoring by being credited with an empty-net goal at 19:26. "I knew Versteeg was coming but he didn't really enter the zone, so I didn't look for another guy in front. For me, it was just containing Versteeg and I threw it back and when I turned around, Upshall was right there. I said, 'Wow.' Bad luck."

Bad luck indeed, since teams that win Game 5 historically go on to win the series nearly 80 percent of the time.

"It's not a fun situation to be in," Brodeur said. "It's survival. These guys will try to take away something from you and you have to have that attitude to fight to the end."

Especially if it is so near.