Cool Cats: Resilient Panthers right back in Stanley Cup Final after OT win

Matthew Tkachuk tied it late with his franchise-high 11th goal of the playoffs and Carter Verhaeghe fired home the OT-winner as the Florida Panthers rallied to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 earning their first win in the Stanley Cup Final.

SUNRISE, Fla. — The first-draft narratives of the third game of the 2023 Stanley Cup Final — swiftly deleted like a regretted tweet — had already been written before the puck dropped on the third period.

Before Sergei Bobrovsky made a few more big-time saves, the kind he was making late in Round 1 and throughout Rounds 2 and 3. And before coach Paul Maurice waved his star netminder to the bench for an extra man and a last gasp.

Before Matthew Tkachuk, clutch as a small purse, got to the net-front the way father Keith always instructed him to do and whacked home a 2-2 tying goal with just 2:13 on the clock, clearing concussion testing and flooding the barn with rats in the nick of time.

Before overtime, when Carter Verhaeghe, that swift and humble sniper, shot home the very first Cup Final game-winning puck in Florida Panthers history.

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Before those Cats used another one of their lives to scratch and claw another day and send this traveling circus back to Vegas for at least one more time.

Yes, those early Game 3 drafts, the ones penciled prior to Florida’s resilient 3-2 overtime comeback win on Thursday, were less than kind to the home team.

Those crumpled stories read something like this:

Florida’s special teams are a mess, and the Panthers can’t stay out of the penalty box. Their star goaltender is getting outdueled by a man who makes about one-fifth his salary. And the Vegas Golden Knights’ name-brand stars are producing more offence.

Heck, these guys probably rested so long after Round 3’s sweep, their mojo vanished. And, hey, wasn’t it only a matter of time they started to look like an 8-seed anyway?

Well, isn’t it so Panthers to flip the script and send the pundits scurrying back to their laptops?

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Even down 2-1 late in the game, at grave risk of tumbling down 3-0 in the series, Maurice sensed a pushback brewing. Mostly because he’s already seen this same group snatch victory from the maw of defeat so frequently before.

“It’s more of the mood on the bench in the last five or six minutes, right? There’s that belief that it can happen,” Maurice begins. The coach stops. He reaches a better sentence. “There’s an intensity on the bench about good things that could happen.”

Sam Reinhart tells it from the player’s view: “At that point, it’s almost like you’re fighting mentally. Stay in it, stay in it. A moment like [Tkachuk’s goal] kind of turns it around for you and gives you some energy.”

So, the Panthers retreat to the room after 60 minutes, with the bulk of one of the contest’s “475 penalties” (Maurice’s estimate) still to kill. They have life.

They get the kill. Eric Staal, a man nearly out of the league, comes up with a key block.

Verhaeghe finds one of the soft spots. Sam Bennett finds Verhaeghe’s tape. And the NHL’s most unsung 42-goal man makes no mistake.

“Verhaeghe wants the puck. Why wouldn’t ya? I think there’s some collective confidence from the past,” says Maurice. “Shoot the damn puck.”

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Verhaeghe, Tkachuk, Bobrovsky — they needed three games to impact this series, but they all awoke to the moment here in what Tkachuk labeled “by far the biggest game of our season.”

Tkachuk uses a chip on his shoulder for motivation so often, it’s become an inside joke.

“They all counted us out before the Final even started. So being [down 0-2] probably added to that a bit,” he said.

“Whether it’s guys playing through stuff or coming back in the game late tonight or being down 0-2 or looking back to the adversity throughout the whole season. So, we don’t know how we’re gonna get there. But we’re going to do everything we can to get there.”

Funny. The Cats are embracing the role of the underdog.

It’s as if they prefer digging a hole just so they can laugh in your face after they scramble to the surface.

“Underdogs? I think he said that like 25 times,” Nick Cousins chuckled of his linemate, Tkachuk. “I think we have a confidence and belief in our group that we can win. And I mean, really, when it comes down to it, that’s all that matters.

“Like, we don’t care about the outside noise. We don’t care what the media has to say. We just go out there and play. That’s what we’ve done all playoffs.”

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What the Panthers had not done — until Thursday’s late narrative-twisting, series-extending heroics — was win a game in the Stanley Cup Final.

Three wins away. So far still, yet the nearest this organization has ever stood.

“It’s amazing. I’m not gonna lie,” captain Aleksander Barkov said.

“I’ve been here for a long time, and this is the best time in my life right now — to play in front of that crowd and be battling for something you’ve been dreaming of since literally when I was born. It’s huge.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Tkachuk says he knew he’d be returning to the game once he was forced to the quiet room following this massive, open-ice hit from Keegan Kolesar in the first period. Curiously, Tkachuk did squeeze in a power-play shift before he was sent for testing.

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• The Elvis wig and glitter glasses the Golden Knights rotate post-win as their player-of-the-game award was Jack Eichel’s idea.

“It’s a big thing for us in our locker room,” coach Bruce Cassidy says. “You’ve got to have a little sense of humour or a little creativity as well. I think those things go a long way over a long playoff run, and I think that one’s been talked about — and all the guys want to get it.”

• While Vegas is humming at 6-for-17 on the power-play, Florida is a dreadful 0-for-12.

“It’s a different PK than we’ve seen,” Bennett says. “It’s a little more passive.”

Adds Tkachuk: “Comparing their whole team to Carolina, it’s a complete opposite. Carolina’s as hard man-on-man as you’re going to find, and their PK pressures pretty much all over the ice except for the net-front guys. And Vegas is a lot different. They’re big. They have long reaches. Their centremen are strong. That’s what starts every power play, and then they’re all big guys. So it is more of a challenge than playing Carolina in that sense, to be able to get to the net and get pucks through them.”

• Golden Knights forward William Karlsson missed practice Wednesday because he was feeling under the weather but had no issues playing Thursday.

“I finished Ted Lasso yesterday. That’s what I did,” Karlsson said. “Not too bad. A little sad ending. But I thought it was a feel-good, and I felt good after. They did a good job.”

• Jonathan Marchessault became the first skater to score a power-play goal in each of the first three games of a Cup Final since Montreal’s Dick Duff in 1969. Nice.

Marchessault now has 13 goals in his past 13 games and 19 points in his past 11. Ten of those 13 goals have either tied the game or given Vegas a lead.

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