Thursday, May 26, 2022

Panthers stage big comeback to take series lead on Capitals

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SUNRISE, Fla. – Carter Verhaeghe set a Florida postseason record with a five-point night, and the Florida Panthers escaped a three-goal deficit to beat the Washington Capitals 5-3 and take a 3-2 lead in an Eastern Conference first-round series Wednesday night .

Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 28 shots for Florida, which trailed 3-0 in the second period. Verhaeghe had two goals and three assists for the Panthers.

Patric Hornqvist, Claude Giroux and Sam Reinhart also scored for the Panthers, and Alexander Barkov had two assists.

TJ Oshie scored twice for Washington, which also got a goal from Justin Schultz and two assists from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Ilya Samsonov stopped 33 shots.

Verhaeghe broke the Panthers’ playoff scoring record that Ray Sheppard set on a four-point night back on April 22, 1996 – which remains the last, and only, season in which the Panthers won a playoff series.

They can change that Friday, when Game 6 is played in Washington. Game 7, if necessary, would be back at Florida on Sunday.

The Panthers’ Carter Verhaeghe scores on Ilya Samsonov to take the lead in the third period.

Verhaeghe gave the Panthers their only lead at 3:04 of the third, after a pair of marvelous plays at both ends. He created a turnover deep in the zone, sent the puck to Barkov and then went into a full sprint for about 100 feet of ice to find a spot to receive the return pass.

Barkov put it on his stick, Verhaeghe put it into the net, and Florida led 4-3. Bobrovsky slammed the door from there, Giroux scored the insurance goal at 15:55, and the Comeback Cats had done it again.

This was the season of the comeback for Florida, which had an NHL-best 29 come-from-behind wins during the regular season. The Panthers pulled off five wins after trailing by three goals, and rallied in the final moments of Game 4 to force overtime in Washington before winning early in the extra session and tying the series.

Florida’s rally matched the largest in an NHL playoff game since April 19, 2011, when the San Jose Sharks erased a four-goal deficit to beat the Los Angeles Kings 6-5. There had been three two-goal deficits in these playoffs entering Wednesday, but nobody had successfully dug out of a three-goal hole.

Until now.

Florida’s last 3-2 series lead was a decade ago, the 2012 first round against New Jersey. The Panthers lost Games 6 and 7, the finale at home in double overtime – part of the 26-years-and-counting drought that has dogged this franchise.

This team was assembled to change fortunes. For the first half of Wednesday, it didn’t look good on that front.

Oshie opened the scoring at 7:09 of the first, doing what he probably does best – redirection. He set up in the slot, obstructing Bobrovsky as best he could, then changed the flight of a shot by John Carlson just enough to get it into the net for a 1-0 Washington lead.

It stayed that way until the second, when two goals in a span of 1:25 looked to give Washington full control. Schultz found a crease within a maze of bodies in front of the net and blasted the puck through to make it 2-0, and Oshie finished off a pass from Kuznetsov on a 2-on-1 break to make it 3-0.

And that’s when the Panthers did what they do best – rally.

In a span of 7:51, Florida went from down three and in huge trouble to tied going into the third. Verhaeghe watched the puck come off the end boards and batted it in to get Florida on the scoreboard. Hornqvist went over Samsonov’s glove on a breakaway, and the equalizer came from Reinhart. He picked up a loose puck at the edge of the crease and tapped it into the back of the net to make it 3-3.

The Capitals were 20-1-0 in games when they led by at least three goals at any point this season, including playoffs. The one loss – Nov. 30, when a 4-1 lead going into the third became a 5-4 loss.

The opponent that night? That would be the Florida Panthers.

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