SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers' Jose Theodore isn't the most accomplished goaltender in this first-round playoff series against New Jersey. He hasn't always even been clearly the best goalie on his own team. He arrived here, before this NHL season, considered at age 35 to be well past his best days and fading.
On Saturday night, Theodore was everything the Panthers needed him to be in a 3-0 victory here over the Devils sending Florida back up to Jersey with a 3-2 series lead for Game 6 on Tuesday night.
He was better than the Devils' legendary Martin Brodeur, one of his boyhood heroes. He reaffirmed himself as the Cats' best goalie, after being pulled two games ago and then benched for younger Scott Clemmensen in the last game. And if the calendar and career arc would paint Theodore as a goalie in decline, well, the years and doubts seemed to fall away Saturday.
"For me that's Theo. That's what I expected," first-year coach Kevin Dineen said. "A true professional."
Theodore rejected all 30 New Jersey shots in what was a one-goal game until late. The Panthers hadn't had a shutout victory in the playoffs since John Vanbiesbrouck turned the trick on April 17, 1997. And it was Theodore's first postseason shutout since 2004, with Montreal.
Distinctive home chants for the goaltender have bookended the Panthers' best days as a hockey franchise. Way back when it was "Bee-zer, Bee-zer!" blooming for Vanbiesbrouck in the run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals. On Saturday night, the crowd sang a soccer-esque serenade for Theodore -- "Jose" replacing the word "Ole."
Theodore didn't just come up big in Game 5 on Saturday. He did in the days leading up to it, too, with his deportment and grace after being pulled for a shaky early showing in Game 3 and then sitting in Game 4 as Clemmensen was given his first career postseason start.
When Dineen called Theodore "a true professional," he had in mind how it might have been different this week. Theodore could have been a diva over his benching. Could have pouted, made noise, sewn controversy at just the time no team needs it.
But Theodore had seen the great Brodeur also pulled in this series, in Game 3, and then respond with his record-setting 24th career playoff shutout in Game 4. Theodore saw that from the bench as he watched another goalie take his place that game, and marveled in respect for Brodeur.
"We both want to show pride and bounce back," Theodore said after Saturday's victory, still in uniform but hair sopping wet from sweat, as if he'd just stepped from the shower. "Growing up, Marty was a (role) model for me. Seeing him bounce back was inspiring. I wanted to do the same thing, and show that same pride."
Theodore was asked how this week had been for him. He was being invited to say how tough it was being pulled from one game and then benched for one. He didn't bite.
"A great playoff week," he said instead. "It's fun being in this situation. Looking around the league, you're a part of it. It's a fun situation."
The Panthers are one victory now from their first postseason series win in the Stanley Cup playoffs since Beezer's 1996 run.
It will come Tuesday night in New Jersey or Thursday back here in Game 7, if it comes at all. NHL first-round history indicates teams that win the pivotal Game 5 win the series 79 percent of the time.
Florida is in this position because Theodore kept denying the Devils their due Saturday while Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky (on a late open net) deposited goals.
Versteeg's was the first, which Theodore's shutout turned into the game-winner. He is one of the guys general manager Dale Tallon brought here from the champion Chicago Blackhawks of 2010.
Versteeg in fact has "06-09-10" tattooed on his upper right arm, marking the day that team won the Stanley Cup. It happened the NHL misspelled his name on the Cup engraving (as "Vertseeg") before correcting it.
Versteeg fancies himself an amateur singer and a potential terror in karaoke bars. He used to sing and rap Kanye West and Fergie songs for teammates in Chicago. Saturday's goal gave his Panthers teammates something to sing about, along with 19,513 delirious fans who pelted the ice with rubber rats as the final horn sounded.
This Panthers team officially has moved deeper into the playoffs than any Florida squad since the '96 crew that lost in the Finals.
That team and this one share a certain underdog quality.
"We don't have a 60-goal scorer," as Dineen put it. "We need a group effort."
That '96 team and this one have something else in common.
Vanbiesbrouck was 33 then, thought to be well past his prime but enjoying a career renaissance.
Theodore, two years older, was doing some of that Saturday night.
If he can continue, this Cats' playoff run has a chance to do the same.