‘Comeback Cats’ strike again, rally from 3 down to beat Caps and go up 3-2 in first round
SUNRISE, Fla. — For the second time in three days, the Florida Panthers were all but dead, stuck in a precarious hole and in need of a thrilling comeback to avoid falling to the brink of first-round elimination.
Of course, comebacks are what they do best and their most important one yet now has them on the verge of reaching the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs after a 5-3 win against the Washington Capitals in a pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday in Sunrise.
The Panthers were down 3-0 with less than 34 minutes left and then they roared back to life. Their three-goal deficit was gone in 7:51 and forward Carter Verhaeghe finally delivered them a 3-2 series lead when he beat Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov for a game-winning goal with 16:56 left.
Florida has not won a postseason series since it went to the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs in just its third year of existence and hadn’t even led a series since 2012. Now the Panthers are one win away and can clinch their spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday when they head to Washington for Game 6.
Fittingly, it would take a comeback in the series, too. Florida lost Game 1 and two of the first three, and were 2:04 away from a near-insurmountable series deficit Monday at Capital One Arena before forward Sam Reinhart scored with the goalie pulled to force overtime. Verhaeghe scored a few minutes into the extra period to knot the series at 2-2 and swing the advantage back to the Panthers, who would get to play two of the final three games in the series back at home, if necessary.
On Wednesday, Florida packed 20,023 inside FLA Live Arena and they were ready for a comeback because of how often they saw them all year. In the regular season, the Panthers tied an NHL record with 29 come-from-behind victories, set a league record with five comebacks of three goals or more and became only the third team in history to come back from multiple four-goal deficits in the same season.
Their rally Wednesday had all the hallmarks of those thrilling victories. Florida was dominating the early stages of play — the Panthers outshot Washington, 15-10, in the first period — and even had the first three shots of the second period before the Capitals got a two-goal flurry to put Florida in peril.
With two goals in 1:25, Washington went up 3-0 with 16:22 left in the second period. The Capitals — who are a significant underdog in this series, but still have nine players left from their 2018 Stanley Cup-winning team — were inching toward a chance to seal their upset back at home Friday.
With 13:10 left in the second period, the Panthers’ comeback began and it started with Verhaeghe, who, at just 26, is one of the most playoff-tested players on the roster because of the bit part he played on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s run to the Cup in 2020.
When the series has gotten its toughest, the Canadian has come through most consistently. On Monday, he scored in the first period to erase an early Washington lead, then delivered the game-winner in overtime. On Wednesday, he contributed to all five goals, scoring twice and assisting on the other two.
For the first, he was in the right place at the right time after star center Aleksander Barkov whipped a pass off the boards behind the Capitals’ goal, able to tap in an easy goal to start the comeback. For the second, he again wound up in the right place at the right time — he was getting off the ice for a line change when Washington misplayed a puck at its offensive blue line — and he followed it with a perfectly timed saucer pass to spring right wing Patric Hornqvsit for a breakaway goal.
With two goals in 5:37, Florida cut the Capitals’ lead to 3-2. Less than three minutes later, it was gone. Chaos around Washington’s goal left a puck on the doorstep for Reinhart, who came from behind the net and knocked in the game-tying goal with 5:19 left in the second.
The final goal was Verhaeghe’s, too, although Barkov made it happen.
The Panthers only needed 3:04 of the third period to turn the Capitals into the chasers. Barkov flew into the zone and held the puck until he was almost down to the goal line, drawing Samsonov’s attention away from Verhaeghe on the other side of the goal. Once Samsonov made his move, Barkov made his and the crowd was cheering before the puck even hit Verhaeghe’s stick for the game-winning redirection.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave up three goals on the first 13 shots he faced, stopped the last 18 he saw and versatile All-Star forward Claude Giroux added an insurance goal with 4:05 remaining — also assisted by Verhaeghe.
Florida is on the verge of something rare. It took something special to get there.
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