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Panthers force overtime in final minutes, beat Capitals in OT to even series at 2-2

The Florida Panthers were all but doomed. There were less three minutes separating them from a near-insurmountable series deficit and, with no goaltender in their net and an extra skater on the ice, they were one shot away from overtime or one away from an almost-certain Game 4 loss to the Washington Capitals.

A shot from Garnet Hathaway from his own zone went just wide of the open goal. It would have effectively crushed the Panthers both in the game and, maybe, this first-round series in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Instead, Florida had life again and Sam Reinhart used it. With 2:04 left in regulation, the forward scored from the slot, corralling a bouncing puck and flicking it past Ilya Samsonov to force overtime. With 15:03 left in the first sudden-death overtime period, forward Carter Verhaeghe sniped a shot over the left shoulder of Ilya Samsonov. The Panthers beat the Capitals, 3-2, at Capital One Arena in Washington.

They were inches away from the brink of disaster. Now they’re somehow back in control of the first-round series, tied 2-2 as they head back to Sunrise for Game 5 on Wednesday and they’re playing as well as they have at any point in these young Stanley Cup playoffs.

Florida fell behind 1-0 in the first 7:15, tied the game up at 1-1 less than seven minutes later and no one else scored again until the final 11 minutes. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers went 0 of 4 on the power play — including 0 of 3 in the span of just 8:30 in the first half of the second period — and needed a 32-16 advantage in shots on goal, but they finally seized back home-ice advantage by beating the No. 8-seed Capitals on the road.

Including the regular season when Florida tied an NHL record with 29 come-from-behind wins, it was the Panthers’ 30th successful comeback of the year and now they need to win 2 of 3 — with two of the games back at FLA Live Arena — to win a playoff series for the first time since they reached the 1996 Stanley Cup Final in their third season of existence.

A loss would’ve all but doomed Florida to another early exit — only 30 teams in NHL history have come back to win a seven-game series after losing three of the first four. A win has the Panthers favored to win the opening-round series once again — and guarantees they’ll have at least a Game 6 on the road Friday.

They’re also getting stronger as the series goes and might even have the lead if they weren’t 0 of 13 on the power play in the first four games. Even with a blowout loss in Game 3, Florida outshot the Capitals, 62-47, across two games in Washington and 89-57 in the last eight periods, dating back to Game 2 on Thursday in South Florida.

The game could hardly have started worse for Florida. The Panthers committed three penalties in the first 7:01 and Washington capitalized on the third, scoring 14 seconds into its second power play of the game — Florida’s first penalty led to a 4-on-4 — when Capitals winger T.J. Oshie deflected a shot past goaltender Bobrovsky.

It erased a solid opening few minutes for the Panthers — they were outshooting Washington, 5-1, before they went on the penalty kill for the first time — and sent Florida into a first-period hole for the second time in four games.

The Panthers have only led at the end of the first once, going on to win Game 2 after they scored twice in the opening period.

Florida did fight back to a draw by the end of the frame, though. After matching minor penalties led to more 4-on-4 action, star defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Verhaeghe got a 2-on-1, and star defenseman John Carlson went for Ekblad. The 26-year-old Canadian — playing in just his fourth game since a right knee injury in March ended his regular season with about six weeks to go — fed Verhaeghe and the forward beat Samsonov to tie the game at 1-1 with 5:52 left in the first.

The Panthers outshot the Capitals, 11-7, in the first period, even though they played four minutes shorthanded and only two on the power play.

The second period was spent almost entirely with one team or the other on the power play. Defenseman Ben Chiarot went into the penalty box just 12 seconds into the period for a delay of game and Florida killed off Washington’s first chance. The Panthers then got three straight power plays and couldn’t score on any, then they committed back-to-back penalties to give the Capitals 43 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage.

Again, the penalty kill triumphed and the game stayed 1-1 at the second intermission. It wasn’t quite a must-win situation for Florida, but it was close. Twenty minutes separated the Panthers from a near-insurmountable series deficit and Washington struck the first blow when All-Star center Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on a breakaway.

The play had Florida’s bench up in arms. The Capitals sprung Kuznetsov when Oshie clobbered forward Sam Bennett as he entered the offensive zone. Oshie hit Bennett high — up near the chest or perhaps even the face — and the Panthers were sure it should’ve been a penalty. Instead, Kuznetsov got behind the defense, moved from right to left to get Sergei Bobrovsky to slide and lifted the go-ahead goal over the sprawling goaltender.

The “Comeback Cats” struck back.