NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 17: The Florida Panthers celebrate with goalie Scott Clemmensen #30 of the Florida Panthers after they won 4-3 against the New Jersey Devils in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Prudential Center on April 17, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
There's nothing wrong with a bit of gamesmanship, but the decision by the New Jersey Devils to "tweak" the ice conditions in advance of the Florida Panthers' warmup skate may well have backfired in Game 3.
When the Florida Panthers came out for their game day skate prior to Game 3 at Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils, they found a nasty surprise. Not only was the ice quality poor enough to draw major complaints from head coach Kevin Dineen, but their hosts had also freshly wet down the rink.
It's the sort of gamesmanship that has been celebrated in the NHL and other sports for decades. It's why Scotty Bowman would always insist on the visitors' locker rooms being repainted before hosting a playoff game. It's why the showers inside of Iowa Stadium are a lovely shade of rose pink. It's the reason coaches refuse to release starters or lineup cards until the last minute.
Tonight, however, that attempt to squeeze a bit of psychological advantage out of the first game in their building may have cost the Devils the opportunity to take control of this series, as they dropped a 3-0 first period lead in Game 3 before ultimately falling to the Panthers, 4-3.
Though much will be rightfully made of the performance of Scott Clemmensen in his relief efforts of Jose Theodore, the ice conditions seemed to be a major factor for both clubs, particularly after the first intermission, where the ice resurfacing seemed to aggravate the problem.
Skaters seemed to struggle against the slow ice, leading to several offside plays. Pucks frequently took untoward bounces, and transitions suffered accordingly. To their credit, the Panthers seemed to relish the challenge, and worked to confront goalie Johan Hedberg in close around the net rather than attempting rapid passes and deflection plays.
The key moment, however, may have come just a few minutes after Brian Campbell gave the Panthers their first goal of the game.
Pinching in from the blue line, Devils defenseman Peter Harrold found the puck between Ed Jovanovski and Mike Weaver, then attempted to make a move around the defenders. The puck, however, refused to settle down, sliding off his stick and harmlessly into a corner, while Harrold would lose his footing and fall for his trouble.
As the game continued, the Devils seemed less and less comfortable with the conditions in their own rink, while the Panthers put their heads down and ground the puck around the ice, generally avoiding icing calls on defensive clears by using the slower surface to their advantage. The same "soupy" conditions also came into play as the Devils attempted to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation, with Patrik Elias and Zach Parise both struggling to settle down the puck before attempting shots.
The ice conditions were not totally deliberate -- much can be put at the feet of the New Jersey Nets game on Monday evening -- but by skating through the degraded conditions, the Panthers may well have been given the edge they needed to take the lead in this series.