The Florida Panthers have taken down the Washington Capitals in Game 6 to eliminate Alex Ovechkin’s side from the 2022 post-season. Which means the Cats will either face the Toronto Maple Leafs in an all-offence thriller, or the Tampa Bay Lightning in an all-Florida battle, depending on how Saturday’s Game 7 shakes out.
Speaking of Game 7’s, the New York Rangers outlasted what’s left of the Pittsburgh Penguins to stay alive in their first-round series, pushing the battle back to Manhattan for an all-or-nothing finale of their own.
And they did it in eerily familiar fashion.
Here’s how things shook out the first time the Rangers managed to stay alive, in Game 5: Pittsburgh got off to a solid start, building up a 2-0 lead. The Rangers woke up in the second period, and tied it up with two quick goals, and then added a third to take the lead. Pittsburgh managed to pull level with one themselves, tying the game at 3-3, before the Rangers iced it with two more goals in the third.
Here’s how Game 6 went: Exactly the same. Two-goal Pens lead, two quick ones from New York to tie it, a third from the Rangers to take the lead, one more from Pittsburgh to even it up, and two more from the Rangers to ice it.
Copy and paste.
But the way these two games have gone tracks with where each club is at right now. In both matches, both sides have proven to be resilient, have shown they have enough talent to get key goals in key moments. But with all the bodies they’re missing, the Penguins seem to be lacking what they need to get over that last hill.
That they’re even this close is impressive enough, considering they’re without their best forward (Sidney Crosby), their two best netminders (Tristan Jarry, Casy DeSmith), their most steady defenceman (Brian Dumoulin), and the offensive balance that comes with being able to slot in Rickard Rakell.
They’ve been able to come close, but not quite match the Rangers. Now they’re down to one last shot at keeping this train rolling.
MIKA MAKING NOISE
After putting up 29 goals during the regular season, and amassing 151 over the past half-decade, Mika Zibanejad found himself sitting with a goose egg in the goals column heading into this pivotal Game 6.
Counted on to be one of the club’s key offensive threats, the 29-year-old posted just four assists over the first five games of this series. Most concerning was the fact that he wasn’t helping himself out by putting pucks on the net. Finishing with the second-most shots of any Ranger during the regular season, Zibanejad had just three on net during the teams’ Game 1 triple-overtime marathon. He came alive with five the next night, but in each of the past three games, he had only two shots apiece.
Friday night, it finally started breaking No. 93’s way.
It was the smooth-skating Swede who tallied two quick goals to tie the game up early in the second period — sniping off a pair of one-timers a minute-and-a-half apart — to keep his club in the fight. That pair ranks as the fastest two goals any Ranger has tallied in the playoffs in four decades. Zibanejad also became the only Ranger to score more than once in a potential elimination game since he joined the organization.
And then he went out and set up the Rangers’ next two goals alongside Chris Kreider, putting it away.
It’s always come in bunches for Zibanejad, and that remains true in these playoffs. All told, he finished Game 6 with six shots and four points, a crucial performance from one of New York’s most important leaders as they keep their season alive.
CLAUDE COMES UP CLUTCH
Last night, we saw two teams benefitting significantly from their trade deadline pickups, with the St. Louis Blues getting a key goal from deadline add Nick Leddy to finish off their series, and Hampus Lindholm looking great in his return for the Bruins, who similarly forced Game 7.
Friday night, the most high-profile deadline acquisition of the season proved his worth, too.
On three different occasions in Game 6, Claude Giroux showed the Panthers brass why he was worth the haul they gave up to bring him to town. The first came midway through the third period, with the Capitals holding a 2-1 lead as they looked to join the Game 7 parade. Deep in his own end, Giroux started the sequence off by air-mailing it out of the zone to safety. Carter Verhaeghe got the puck to Aaron Ekblad, who pushed forward into the offensive zone.
By the time Ekblad looked to dish it, Giroux had sprinted the length of the sheet to join him — the 34-year-old took the pass, sniped it five-hole, and knotted the game up at two apiece.
With five minutes left in the frame, Giroux came up big again, fishing a puck out of a scramble in front of the Caps net and getting it over to Aleksander Barkov, who tucked it home to give Florida a temporary lead. A goal from T.J. Oshie in the final minutes of the period knotted things up yet again, sending the tilt to overtime.
And there, in the most important period of Florida’s season, was Giroux again, picking up the puck behind Washington’s net, spinning and whipping a gorgeous pass to Verhaeghe, who made no mistake on the winner.
The veteran didn’t exactly dominate over the course of the six-game series, but posted four points through the first five games nonetheless. In the last one, though, he flashed just the type of all-world skill that prompted the Panthers to go get him at the deadline, and it wound up being the difference.
What else can be said about this ridiculous run from Verhaeghe so far?
We recounted a couple nights ago just how crucial he was to the Panthers’ success over the tail end of their series, but with each passing game, the 26-year-old just keeps adding to the pile.
Through the first three games of this series, Washington came out with a 2-1 series lead, an upset looming. Then the Cats won three straight to close it out — here’s what Verhaeghe did in those three:
Game 4: Verhaeghe scores in the first to tie the game up, and then scores again in overtime to finish it. Series tied.
Game 5: With Florida trailing 3-0, Verhaeghe takes over and leads his club back — the Panthers put up five straight goals, No. 23 factoring in on all five, putting in two himself and registering a primary helper on the three others. Florida takes the series lead, pushing the Caps to the brink.
Game 6: Just when it seems like a quiet night for Verhaeghe, only a secondary assist to his name through three hard-fought periods, there he is with the series clincher in overtime — going skate-to-stick, and top shelf off the backhand. Yeesh.
In netting that last overtime winner, Verhaeghe joined some elite, elite company. He’s just the fourth player in NHL history to score multiple overtime goals in a single playoff year (the others: Mel Hill in 1939, Maurice Richard in 1951, Corey Perry in 2017). He also became just the 12th player in NHL history — and just the fourth in the past 20 years — to score the game-winning goal in three straight playoff contests.
He now has 12 points through these playoffs so far, tied with Connor McDavid for the league lead. His six goals sit just one behind the league's top spot.
The wildest part of it all: Guess how much Florida paid this year for this all-world production? A tidy sum of $1 million.
The former Bolts castaway, who's absolutely showing out for the Cats right now, is the ninth-highest-paid forward on Florida’s roster. He’s the 18th-highest-paid player on the roster overall — in fact, the Panthers' cap recapture penalty for retired netminder Roberto Luongo cost them more this season than Vergaeghe ($1,092,122).
Yet, so far, Verhaeghe's been the most important Panther in these playoffs, and it’s not particularly close.