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Give Me a Second: Florida Panthers Trio Giving Opponents Fits

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The Florida Panthers new second line — consisting of Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Matthew Tkachuk — makes opponents think twice in how they play defense, coach Paul Maurice said. — Photos by Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

Ever since Carter Verhaeghe signed with the Florida Panthers in 2021, he has kept getting better and better.

After setting career-highs in goals (24) and points (55) last season, he is on pace to shatter those totals this year.

The 27-year-old winger is currently second on the Panthers in goals (20) and tied for third with Sasha Barkov in points (35) during a season where he has been one of their most consistently reliable players.

It took a while for Verhaeghe to break out at the NHL level but he hit the ground running when he arrived in Sunrise.

He quickly gained the trust of Florida’s coaching staff upon his arrival and became a standout on the top line next to Barkov.

The duo developed chemistry with each other quickly and Verhaeghe became a dangerous player off the rush with the combination of speed and shooting ability he has.

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This year has been a bit different.

With Barkov missing time with injuries and illness, Verhaeghe spent a lot of time on a line with Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett.

Again, success has come quickly.

Enough so that Panthers coach Paul Maurice decided to keep them together going forward.

“Every team in the National Hockey League has a top pair of defensemen that can play against the other team’s best and now they’ve got to decide how they want to do that,” Maurice said.

“It is a positive to have that on the road where you don’t get last change, forcing the other team to decide if it’s ‘Barkov or Tkachuk?’ tonight.”

Tkachuk and Verhaeghe and particular have caught on together quite nicely — especially in slowed-down offensive zone situations.

“I think Matthew puts the puck in a lot of good places for a guy like that to just skate into it,” Maurice said.

”Carter is a great skater and a great shooter but he is not necessarily going to control the puck in the offensive zone. He is not a heavy guy. But Matthew can hang on long enough for Carter to get into holes.”

Tkachuk’s unique combination of strength and hands creates scoring opportunities that are not there for most players and Verhaeghe has the speed and wherewithal to get where he needs to be to finish them.

”He is really physical and he gets to the hard areas on the ice,”  Verhaeghe said.

”He is a phenomenal player, he makes really good passes and if you put a puck in front of the net he will most likely find a way to put it in.”

That playmaking ability has become a very underappreciated part of Tkachuk’s game that has shined of late.

Tkachuk possesses the ability to read plays in small spaces that most players cannot make and he uses his strength to make it happen.

”Once you have a guy that goes to the net and takes defenders with him, it gives you a lot more space in the offensive zone to make plays,” Verhaeghe said.

”His passing ability is really underrated. He drags a lot of guys to him and he always makes really good plays with the puck. He is going to find me every time I’m open.”

And when he is open, Tkachuk trusts Verhaeghe to put it home.

”His shot is amazing,” Tkachuk said.

“He is one of the few guys in the league who can score from the outside. He just needs an opportunity to shoot and it has a chance to go in and there are not many guys in the league who are like that.”

Verhaeghe’s connection with Tkachuk has helped him adjust to Maurice’s system that focuses less on rush chances and more on grinding in a tight-checking offensive zone game to make them happen.

Tkachuk’s ability to make something out of nothing and Verhaeghe’s ability to get open and shoot the puck has been the perfect match.

”I think for sure having Tkachuk on the team helps no matter what system we play,” Verhaeghe said.

“His game definitely complements a lot of guys on this team because he has so much skill but plays a different kind of way.”

The biggest adjustment Maurice has made with the new system has been pinning more responsibility on his forwards to make an impact in the defensive zone.

Bennett has picked up a lot of that responsibility so Tkachuk and Verhaeghe can play a more free offensive game.

“We don’t talk nearly enough about him,” Maurice said.

”He is back checking for those two guys a lot, he is grinding down low and he is also getting up the ice. The key piece to those two may actually be the guy in the middle.”

PANTHERS ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS AT TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

  • When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
  • 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: Florida won 2-1
  • All-time regular season series: Toronto leads 45-35-7, 7 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday at Montreal, 7 p.m.

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