NEWARK, N.J. -- With more than half the season remaining, this was hardly a must-win game for the Florida Panthers but it meant a little more than the usual mid-week road contest for a team chasing a playoff spot.
The Panthers responded by pulling themselves into a virtual tie for the final wild card spot by throttling the lackluster New Jersey Devils 5-1 at Prudential Center on Thursday night.
Both the Panthers and Devils own 16-12-4 records, although the Devils hold the final postseason spot in the East by virtue of having one more regulation/overtime win. The Panthers are also just two points behind the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic, so this win had more significance than most other December victories.
"We knew what kind of game this was," said Panthers goaltender Al Montoya, who expended little energy while making 15 saves. "This is a team we're right there with and we have to push every single night, find the motivation, whatever it takes. This was a huge statement for ourselves.
"I really wasn't sucking wind tonight. There were a couple chances here and there but it was a solid, predictable game on our part."
The game was hardly in doubt after right winger Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov struck for two goals less than three minutes apart in the first period. Left winger Brandon Pirri had a goal in the second period and capped a three-point night by assisting on an empty-net goal by right winger Logan Shaw in the third period.
Right winger Reilly Smith made it 4-0 early in the third period, a period in which the Devils were held to three shots.
"Some games you have it; some games you don't," Smith said. "You just try to keep those waves going. Hopefully we can keep it going."
Devils coach John Hynes was more displeased than usual after the loss.
When asked how he rated his team work ethic, he said, "It needs to be a lot better than it was tonight."
The Devils have alternated wins and losses over their past 10 games and have failed to win back-to-back games since Nov. 14-16. Hynes said it's something of which he's aware and is a point of emphasis for the team.
"We've done some things to try to be better and we don't want to be win one, lose one," Hynes said. "I also think there's been a lot of lineup changes and lot of adversity we've faced. I don't think we need to overreact. This wasn't a good game."
Devils center Sergey Kalinin ended Montoya's shutout bid with 6:22 to play in the third by scoring a power-play goal to cut the lead to 4-1. He deflected a shot by right winger Kyle Palmeiri for what was only the third goal allowed by Montoya in his past three starts.
The Panthers have won three of four and after a road game Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes, they will play six straight at home and won't leave Florida until January.
With four points separating seven teams in the East, these next seven games could have a huge say in whether the Panthers reach the postseason for the second time in 15 seasons or are again a team that's close but not ready to get over the hump.
"The best defense is a good offense," said Pirri, referencing holding the Devils to 16 shots. "We were cycling pucks. We joke around about Corsi, but that's just puck possession. We had the puck for what felt like the whole night. It's just to generate anything when we're cycling. It just wears you down."
NOTES: Panthers G Roberto Luongo served as the backup. He is expected to start Friday at Carolina against the Hurricanes. ... Panthers C Nick Bjugstad (upper body) has not played since Nov. 29. ... Panthers RW Jaromir Jagr returned after missing one game with an illness. ... Devils LW Tuomo Ruutu was back in the lineup after missing 27 games with a lower-body injury. ... Devils C Travis Zajac (lower body) missed his seventh straight game but could return Saturday to face the Anaheim Ducks.