Vernon Keys Panthers’ Postseason
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) _ The Florida Panthers have seen a gradual change in goaltender Mike Vernon over the past few weeks.
His demeanor is different, his attitude is altered. He is saying less and concentrating more.
It’s playoff time. It’s Vernon’s time.
Vernon ranks fifth in career playoff wins with 77, and the Panthers are counting on him to add four more against the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs. The best-of-7 series opens at New Jersey on Thursday.
``He’s been bearing down and he’s been more focused on the game,″ Panthers left wing Peter Worrell said. ``Earlier in the year, if an unlucky goal went in, he was kind of ho-hum about it. Now he’s fighting to keep every puck out of that net.
``When you’ve got a guy back there battling for you like that, it’s only going to pick up everyone else.″
The 37-year-old Vernon went 7-1-1 in his last nine regular-season starts. He stopped 30 shots per game and gave up 19 goals in that span, helping the Panthers maintain the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
His only blemish since March 11 came Saturday in a 2-1 overtime loss to New Jersey.
Vernon seems primed for the postseason.
``I’ve noticed him really picking it up over the last 10 games or so,″ defenseman Todd Simpson said. ``And that’s where we want him. We want him peaking.″
Vernon has had a tendency to peak in the playoffs.
He won Stanley Cup titles with Calgary in 1989 and Detroit in 1997. He went 16-5 in the postseason with the Flames and 16-4 with the Red Wings. His play in 1997 earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP.
``He’s got the ability to dig down in the big games and come up with some tremendous stops,″ Panthers coach Terry Murray said. ``He has the ability to turn a game around, to maybe outright win a game by himself on any given night.″
Florida may need Vernon to do just that against the Devils, who beat the Panthers three times this season. Florida’s only win came when New Jersey rested goalie Martin Brodeur and defenseman Scott Stevens.
``One player cannot win you a Stanley Cup,″ Vernon said. ``A goaltender can keep you in a game, but he can’t score a goal. There’s always a lot of focus on goaltenders, and teams that have success generally have good goaltenders. But we all have to get on the rope at the same time and pull.″
Florida traded for Vernon in December, two weeks after Trevor Kidd injured a shoulder.
Vernon had been displaced by Steve Shields as San Jose’s starting goaltender this year, playing in just 15 games before being dealt to the Panthers.
Vernon won five of his first seven starts in January before the Panthers started slumping. He went 18-13-2 with Florida and has the team playing its best when it matters the most.
``His play really lifts you, especially because you know he’s been through the wars,″ Worrell said. ``He’s about 85 years old and he’s played in about 50 playoffs series. He’s a great goaltender.
``He’s going to go into the Hall of Fame as one of the best clutch goalies in history. He’s got all the accolades and he’s still at the top of his game right now.″
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