Panthers Vs. Devils Game 7: Florida Eyes Bright Future While New Jersey Advances

eApril 26, 2012; Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen shouts instructions in the first overtime period of game seven of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New Jersey Devils at BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

The Devils will advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals thanks to Adam Henrique's double-OT goal in Game 7, but Panthers fans should look at this as a start, not an ending.

After a dramatic third period rally, the Florida Panthers forced not one, but two overtime periods against a veteran New Jersey Devils squad, but a series of turnovers in their own zone would prove their undoing. Early in that second overtime period, the puck took a bounce to Devils rookie Adam Henrique in the high slot, and the wrister put a bow on a 3-2 New Jersey win in Game 7 and the Panthers 2011-12 season.

The good news for fans in South Florida is that things should only go up from here.

While Kris Versteeg and Jason Garrison will be looking for new contracts this summer (and Versteeg's playoff performance in particular has likely earned him a payday), most of this squad is locked up for the next several seasons.

That same stretch should also see talented prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden join the lineup, while Jacob Markstrom is quietly poised to step into the goaltending picture. With a chance to study under Jose Theodore for one more season, the Panthers next postseason appearance could well see Markstrom between the pipes behind a squad that now has a healthy dose of playoff experience -- not to mention a decent chip on their shoulder.

Meanwhile, Martin Brodeur and the Devils have to feel that they've pulled a monkey off of their backs. After repeated first round collapses in their last three playoff appearances, the Devils not only advance, but do so by winning in Game 7, the exact situation that went spectacularly wrong for them against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2009.

While this series served as an extended coming out party for Henrique, who will also be up for the Calder Trophy later this summer, the Devils also received an excellent performance out of Travis Zajac, who quietly climbed into the top-10 in postseason scoring.

Things are unlikely to get any easier for New Jersey in the next round against the Flyers. There are still major weaknesses in their game that head coach Peter DeBoer must try to address in the short time he has before the start of the semifinals, first and foremost their penalty kill. It went from the top unit in the regular season to a putrid 69.6 percent success rate in the first round, and against a better team, that's a number that could likely send them home.

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