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‘Comeback Cats are Back:’ Ekblad, Verhaeghe lift Panthers over Penguins

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Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad enjoys his postgame press conference after scoring twice in the third period to help the Florida Panthers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in overtime Thursday night. // Courtesy @FlaPanthers

Things looked pretty bleak for the Panthers on Thursday night as it appeared the Pittsburgh Penguins, without their two brightest stars, were going to spoil Florida’s opening night party.

But Aaron Ekblad — and then Carter Verhaeghe — came to the rescue.

The Panthers rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the third period as Ekblad scored a pair of slick goals with Verhaeghe getting his second of the night in overtime as Florida won 5-4.

“Resilient team,” said Ekblad, who was playing in his first game since fracturing his ankle in a game at Dallas last March.

“I only say ‘Comeback Cats’ because we’ve done it quite a few times in the past few years. We live by that mantra. We don’t want to be down in games going into the third period, but the fact that we were able to pull out those two points is huge. You’re always battling for two points the whole year it’s so important.” 

Added Verhaeghe: “The ‘Comeback Cats’ are back. It was fun to be a part of that game. Ekblad had a couple of huge goals. It was a lot of fun, but hopefully, not every game is as dramatic as that was. We’d go crazy probably.”

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As the score indicated, Thursday was not a pretty win.

Not by any means.

The Panthers spent large chunks of the second and third period in the penalty box as Pittsburgh got nine power play opportunities.

“It was a great comeback, a very valuable two points,’’ Joel Quenneville said. “Some positive things but it was one of those crazy games, a crazy beginning to the season, but certainly the outcome was what we were looking for. There’s just some areas to clean up.”

At least rookie Anton Lundell, making his NHL debut, got a workout killing penalties.

Florida led 2-0 in the second after a strange goal from Anthony Duclair who drove in on goalie Casey DeSmith and threw a shot that DeSmith made.

At first, at least.

The rebound went up into the air, hit defenseman Mark Friedman and bounded back out of DeSmith’s reach and into the back of the net.

After that, the Panthers spent a lot of time in the penalty box.

Pittsburgh got its first goal of the night with MacKenzie Weegar serving a weak four-minute penalty as Danton Heinen whipped a shot past Sergei Bobrovsky from the right circle.

Of the four goals Bobrovsky gave up, this was the only one he had a realistic chance of stopping.

The Pens tied the score with 1:02 left in the second period after a Jeff Carter shot went off of Ekblad.

It was Carter’s 400th career goal.

Pittsburgh eventually took its first lead of the night at 8:01 of the third when Jake Guentzel’s shot from behind the net hit Weegar and went past Bobrovsky.

Moments later, Evan Rodrigues scored as players piled up in the net.

Things looked bleak for the Panthers down 4-2 but Ekblad made a great play to pull Florida within a goal.

With every player save for Bobrovsky — and Ekblad — piled into the Pittsburgh net, the puck squirted free.

Ekblad wisely retrieved the puck and found a spot to put it.

The dogpile goal counted and the Panthers now trailed 4-3.

Not long later, Ekblad scored with 4:53 left as he took a Owen Tippett pass, walked into the slot and shoveled a backhanded shot past DeSmith.

Bobrovsky ended up making 43 saves — including a game-saver in overtime.

“I thought Bob was very good,’’ Quenneville said. “He had a strong game. He made several key stops, very timely. He absorbed the puck there in some tight areas, some dangerous areas. I thought he looked sharp, he looked big and in control. So it was a good win for us, a good start.”

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