Florida Panthers doomed by slow start in first playoff game in 12 years

SUNRISE, Fla. — “That’s Dan Marino! Holy hell!”

Those were the pregame words of an unnamed Panthers employee who couldn’t help but be a little overexcited at the first whiff of playoff hockey here in 12 years.

“I’d ask for an autograph, but I know it’ll get me fired.”

You can’t blame the Panthers employees for entering this night star-struck. Most of them were not even with the organization when playoff hockey last visited South Florida in 2000. However, you certainly can blame the Panthers employees who actually took the ice looking like they’ve never seen a playoff game before. A grand total of 19,119 watched the New Jersey Devils race to a 3-0 lead in the first period Friday night on their way to a 3-2 Game 1 win, but we’re not sure if that number includes the guys in red jerseys and breezers.

The Panthers allowed the Devils to fire 26 shots at goalie Jose Theodore in the first 20 minutes alone, and didn’t even give the poor guy a cigarette and a blindfold. That’s the most shots taken in a first period in the NHL playoffs since 1997 – which also happens to be the last year the Panthers won a playoff game. How bad was it? Marek Zidlicky had more shots than any Panthers player in the first. Marek Zidlicky is a defenseman. He had two goals this season.

And the player who got the most postgame praise was actually Theodore, who (believe it or not) looked outstanding in a period in which he let in three. Florida coach Kevin Dineen said if Theodore didn’t play as well as he did, “We’re in trouble.”

Well, they were in trouble. A team that charmed all season with its veteran savvy looked just plain hoary in a period in which it should have been flying around like rockets. It was the Devils who played like they just got out of a 12-year playoff prison sentence, skating literal circles around the home team’s defense. The dagger was also the game-winner, in which Ryan Carter undressed Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski so completely that the video of the unassisted goal should be labeled NSFW.

Meanwhile, Martin Brodeur, age 40, got his 100th career playoff win by turning away fewer shots in three periods (24) than his team fired in one. Now that’s how you treat your elders.

[ Related: Martin Brodeur celebrates 100th playoff victory | Friday's action in photos ]

But there is good news for Panthers fans, who last saw their team in the playoffs against the Devils in 2000, and saw them swept.

And that is the reaction in the dressing room afterward. The Panthers got it together and played quite well after the first-period deluge, closing a 3-0 deficit to 3-2 in the second. But you didn’t hear much in the way of “let’s shake this one off and capitalize on the momentum for Game 2” talk from the Panthers.

They were downright ticked.

“You go out and lose the first period 3-0 and your chances are going to be pretty slim,” spat veteran forward John Madden. “We haven’t played anywhere near where we have to play. You take eight minutes in penalties, well, that can’t help. We weren’t as sharp as they were.”

It was actually only six minutes in penalties, but it felt like eight. Actually it felt like 20.

“I’m very disappointed,” said defenseman Brian Campbell, with a similarly angry look on his face. “You can’t put yourself in that hole to start a game.”

Maybe it was the newness of the playoffs? Did we mention it’s been 12 years?

“That is an excuse,” Campbell said emphatically, “we do not need to use.”

This attitude should come as a relief to Panthers fans. Although the team played like rookies in the first, they did react to the game like veterans. They didn’t resort to just-one-game cliches and blank stares. They were humiliated, and it looked like they wanted to play again immediately. In his post-game press conference, Dineen looked a lot more measured than his players – another good sign for Sunday’s Game 2.

Still, thousands of fans showed up here, and many for the first time in a long time. (That included Marino, by the way, who wore a Panthers jersey, called the scene “cool,” and praised GM Dale Tallon for being a terrific hockey guy and a fantastic golfer.) These people chose the Panthers over the NBA’s Heat, who were at home, and baseball’s Marlins, who were at home. They deserved better. A lot better.

And the Panthers know it.

Long after the game ended and Marino left (carrying his jersey instead of wearing it), a group of fans remained in the darkened concourse. They whooped and hollered and gave each other piggyback rides and chest-bumped. It’s neat that the Panthers fans are happy just to be back in the playoffs.

Just as long as the Panthers themselves don’t act the same way.

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