The Florida Panthers can be forgiven for not knowing how to close out a series. After all, this matchup was just the third Game 6 in franchise history, and of course their first chance to close out an opponent since 1996.
Despite the unwelcome news that Jose Theodore would be unavailable for the potential elimination match in New Jersey, Scott Clemmensen gave a reasonably strong performance, overcoming a weak first-period goal to stop 39 of the Devils' 42 shots in the overtime matchup.
The problem -- and a major concern going into Thursday night's Game 7 matchup back at the Bank Atlantic Center -- is that the team's offense must engage. The Panthers were able to capitalize on Martin Brodeur's struggles with the puck in Game 5 but could not take advantage of the veteran's continued difficulties on home ice. Despite scoring two goals on 16 shots (only 13 of them in regulation), the visitors allowed the Devils to push them away from the top scoring areas and sweep away rebounds.
Meanwhile, the home team hammered away from all angles, avoiding penalties and working to stretch the Panthers through the middle of the ice. Despite that, the Florida defense mostly rose to the challenge. Shots were generally shepherded to bad angles and the outside of the zone. When the Devils opened up the ice, the Panthers worked to give Clemmensen clear lines of vision on the puck carrier. They killed off three of New Jersey's four power plays, including a critical 5-on-3 to start the third period. Defensively, the club made two major mistakes: the overcommitment on the penalty kill that lead to Ilya Kovalchuk's second-period goal, and the bad pinch by Mike Weaver that would lead to the Travis Zajac overtime winner.
But the major issue remains the fact that in almost 66 minutes of hockey, the team simply could not get the puck to the net. Two of the team's biggest offensive stars in this series, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell, failed to register a shot on goal. New Jersey's disciplined play gave them only one power-play opportunity, and the club failed to establish any offensive zone presence, a problem that would haunt them into overtime, when the failure to go to the net let several opportunities slip away. Rebound after rebound appeared around the New Jersey goal, but no skater was ever in position to take advantage.
Perhaps Kevin Dineen and the Florida coaching staff will see adjustments that can be made on home ice, and with luck the extra day off will provide time for some of the key injured players to return to the lineup. One way or another, they must find ways to light the lamp, or the long drought in South Florida will continue to drag on.