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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - It's the biggest game of the Florida Panthers' season. Again.
Seems like every game the Panthers have played in the last few weeks - starting with the race to return to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, then to wrap up the Southeast Division, and after coming back from a Game 1 loss of their Eastern Conference first-round series with New Jersey - has been classified in the same manner.
That might explain why the Panthers have a business-as-usual mindset heading into Game 5 against the Devils on Saturday night, when one team will take a giant stride toward the second round. A best-of-seven series is now a best-of-three, resuming on Florida's home ice.
"We didn't clinch a playoff spot until a couple games left in the season, and then we got our division title in the last game of the season. And people keep saying `That's your first playoff win in so on and so forth,"' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said Friday afternoon. "Lots of little milestones along the way, but obviously, you get it down to three games and this will be a big game. And we're excited."
So are the Devils.
And if anyone needs clarity on the magnitude of Game 5, especially when a series is knotted at two games apiece, ask the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk.
"It's a huge game," Kovalchuk said. "I think it will be a deciding game, so we have to be ready."
The Panthers aren't quite ready to declare Saturday all-or-nothing. Big game, yes. More than that, not so much.
"You know what, I've been in a situation, I was down 3-1 and we came back and won in Game 7," Panthers goalie Jose Theodore said. "I mean, it's a huge game. For sure, it is. But I think until you win four, it's hard to say which one's the biggest."
For now, for the Devils anyway, the biggest one was the last one.
A 4-0 victory behind 26 saves from Martin Brodeur on Thursday night tied the series and represented one of the most one-sided victories New Jersey has enjoyed all season. The Devils won by four or more goals only four times in the regular season, and it matched the team's largest margin of victory in a playoff game since topping Carolina 5-1 on May 13, 2006.
Of course, one big victory guarantees nothing. That four-goal win against the Hurricanes six years ago was New Jersey's only triumph in that series.
"It's two hard-working teams down to a best-of-three," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "I like our situation. We're one of the best road teams in the league. But I'm sure they'd say the same thing over there, that they're one of the best home teams in the league. But we're excited about the opportunity."
The Devils won 24 times on the road in the regular season, one shy of Boston and Philadelphia for the league lead. Florida lost only nine games in regulation at home, fourth-fewest in the league - though that also doesn't take into account the Panthers' two overtime defeats and staggering total of nine shootout losses on home ice.
Dineen is facing the now-familiar dilemma of choosing a goaltender. Scott Clemmensen saved the day after replacing Theodore in Game 3, then gave up four goals on 27 shots in Game 4 - although, in fairness, with the way Brodeur was playing, there wouldn't figure to be much blame placed upon Clemmensen.
"I'll repeat over and over, that no matter what decision I make, I think it'll be a good one," said Dineen, whose team also split four games with New Jersey in the regular season.
Florida will not have defenseman Keaton Ellerby for Game 5 after he got hurt midway through Thursday's game, the team describing it as a lower-body injury. Ellerby was in the lineup for Jason Garrison, someone who the Panthers are "cautiously optimistic" about having available on Saturday night, Dineen said.
Compared to other series around the league throughout the opening playoff round, the Panthers and Devils have been downright gentlemanly. There hasn't been a single major penalty issued in the series, and the teams have combined for 40 minors. By comparison, Philadelphia alone had 42 minors through the first four games of its slugfest with Pittsburgh.
But things are taking a more chippy turn, too. The Devils' David Clarkson picked up a 10-minute misconduct in the final seconds of Game 4, part of a flurry of 11 penalties in the third period.
"I just think it's getting later on the series, and it's getting a little bit tighter so emotions are getting higher," Panthers center Stephen Weiss said. "Saying that, we still need to stay disciplined, stay out of the penalty box and they need to do the same as well. So the chippy stuff is out the window. We've just got to focus on playing hockey."
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