In a game that could only be described as chaotic, the Florida Panthers dropped a seemingly must-win game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime on Tuesday night.
But given all of the variables involved, the effort the Panthers put forth could very well be what this team needed to keep its momentum going into the final stretch of the season.
Without their AHL goaltender starting his second game in as many nights and the team finishing up a stretch of nine of 11 games on the road, Florida clawed its way back from a late third-period deficit before being done in by a Kris Letang overtime winner as the Penguins pulled out a 7-6 win.
”You want it so bad for them because they had nothing left,’’ coach Paul Maurice said. “They gave everything they had, each guy had a piece of the game where he tried to make an impact. Tough way to lose a game. And it’s over.
“We’re so much different than we were a month ago. They rallied around each other, battled. To get a point on the road in the circumstances we are in, couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Verhaeghe — despite all of the mileage that has been put on him and his team during that stretch — tied the game the only way he could: With his speed and his hustle.
He not only won a race to get the puck, but beat Penguins backup goalie Casey DeSmith by stuffing the puck into the net.
“He was skating and had a real drive to his game,” Maurice said. ”I thought all of the leaders did. They came up with big nights on a tough night because we played those guys so damn much.”
Verhaeghe’s goal, which happened to be his career-high 25th of the season, helped the Panthers finish their grueling road stretch with a 6-3-2 record.
”This has been a really crazy schedule,” Verhaeghe said.
”It seems like we have been living on the road right now so it will be nice to go home and play in front of our home fans.”
When Florida flew into Pittsburgh hours after a rough 6-2 loss in New York, they thought they were getting Spencer Knight back in net.
He ended up being a game-time decision — and the decision was made he could not go.
With Sergei Bobrovsky still ailing with a lower-body injury, Alex Lyon was left as the team’s only option less than 24 hours after allowing five goals on 25 shots against the Rangers.
The Pittsburgh Penguins did not even have a back-up available either after starter Tristan Jarry was scratched with an apparent injury.
Emergency backup goalie Mike Chiasson — who works at the Penguins’ training facility — was dressed and available for either team had they needed his services.
Lyon and DeSmith each ended up completing the game, so the chaos of an EBUG vs. EBUG match-up was avoided, but the weirdness certainly did not stop there.
Florida came into the game exhausted — completing the second half of a back-to-back on the last game of a stretch of nine of 11 games on the road — but they certainly did not look that way.
Offensively, at least.
The Penguins exploited the Panthers’ worn-out defense to the tune of 46 scoring chances and 49 shots on 91 shot attempts.
Florida countered that with 34 scoring chances of their own and 19 high-danger chances to Pittsburgh’s 21.
The Panthers had a handle on the game early on — going up 2-0 before the halfway point of the first period — but the Penguins answered back quickly with three unanswered goals.
From there, a back-and-forth shootout ensued.
After entering the second period at 4-4, Colin White scored his first goal in nearly two months to give the Panthers a lead 4:10 into the third period.
Florida held onto that for all of six minutes before the Penguins broke through their exhausted defense for two unanswered goals in a four-minute span.
But the Panthers were not done.
For a Florida team which came into the game without a third-period comeback this season, it came out firing after the goal and it paid off with four minutes to go.
Verhaeghe’s speed and hustle helped Florida tie the game up with 4:32 to go and send the game to overtime.
While Florida was not able to complete its first third-period comeback of the season, it came as close as they’ve been to doing so all season.
And it should be a big momentum boost going forward.
After starting their grueling road stand a game under the .500 mark, they now sit two games over .500 with a much easier road ahead of them.
The Panthers will play 18 of their last 30 games on home ice with a much less travel-filled schedule.
They also have the All-Star break that they will very much need for Bobrovsky, Knight, Sam Bennett (lower-body injury), Eric Staal (concussion) and Anthony Duclair (Achilles surgery) to use to regroup.
PANTHERS ON DECK
LOS ANGELES KINGS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Friday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Los Angeles won 2-0
- This season — Los Angeles leads 1-0: Kings 5, Panthers 4 (Nov. 5)
- All-time regular season series: Los Angeles leads 24-14-0, 3 ties