SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers need a big goal, they know exactly who to call on: Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe.
That dastardly duo had accounted for four of Florida’s six overtime winners going into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.
Add one more to their tally as the Panthers climbed out of the doldrums to claim a 3-2 overtime victory over the Vegas Golden Knights to make this Final an actual series.
“They all counted us out before the Final even started,’’ Tkachuk said. “We’re that type of team, we know what the end goal is for us. We don’t know how we’re going to get there, but we know we’re going to do everything we can to put ourselves in the chance to have that.’’
Down 2-1 with 2:13 remaining, Tkachuk tied the score at 2, sliding home the rebound of a Verhaeghe shot as the Panthers desperately pushed for a goal with Sergei Bobrovsky on the bench for an extra attacker.
Verhaeghe then finished the job 4:27 into overtime with a slick wrist shot from the point which sailed past Adin Hill to win the game and cut Florida’s Stanley Cup Final series deficit to 2-1.
It was the first Stanley Cup Final victory in franchise history.
“I think he just has the nose for the net and he has an unbelievable shot,” Tkachuk said of Verhaeghe.
“He finds the soft areas like not many guys can. He has his skating and it allows him to be one of the top players in the league but if you can’t do anything with that, you can’t be as successful. He’s got that full offensive package that you rarely see.
”You saw his shot tonight. It wasn’t screened. He just has that ability that not that many guys out there have to shoot it from that far. It’s great.”
Tkachuk assisted on Brandon Montour’s opening goal before leaving the game just over seven minutes in.
He took a big hit from Keegan Kolesar which prompted the NHL to put him through concussion protocol only after Tkachuk skated for a whole minute during an ensuing power play unrelated to the hit.
As bad of a time as it was for the Panthers to lose their star player — especially down 2-0 in the series — Tkachuk was confident that he would be able to return.
”I knew I was coming back,” he said.
The feeling was mutual on the Florida bench as his teammates fought on without him.
”He is going to come back no matter what,” captain Sasha Barkov said.
”He is a really tough guy and he is going to battle through everything. Him coming back was a huge boost for us.”
By the time Tkachuk returned, Vegas had already tied it on the power play late in the first, later taking the lead late in the second.
But it was not an unfamiliar position for Tkachuk — a superstar power forward who was brought to Sunrise less than a year ago just for these situations.
Tkachuk got the Panthers’ unlikely playoff run started with the overtime winner in a win-or-go-home Game 5 against the Boston Bruins, a series in which Florida was down 3-1 at the time.
He put an end to Florida’s four-overtime marathon in Raleigh after Ryan Lomberg’s winner was taken off the board for goaltender interference, then ended Game 2 in overtime for good measure.
And, to put the nail in the Carolina Hurricanes’ coffin, he scored the game-winner with 4.9 seconds to go in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final — minutes after the Panthers had squandered a lead — to send them to the Stanley Cup Final.
Verhaeghe has had that similar style of swagger to him for the past two seasons.
He has scored multiple game-winners — including the one which ended Florida’s 26-year playoff series drought — to sink the Washington Capitals in the first round last season.
Then he finished the job Tkachuk started in Game 5 of the first round with a Game 7 overtime victory to upset the greatest regular season team in NHL history.
Both goals are up for consideration as the greatest goal in Panthers history and his Game 3 overtime winner in the Stanley Cup Final could end up in that same conversation.
“Over the course of his career, he’s got the puck off his stick faster than anyone could react to,” Maurice said. “It’s overtime and nobody is beefing him for the best play. There’s no ‘I’m wide open, why didn’t you hit me?’ They’re telling him to shoot the damn puck.”
Backed by their two closers, the Panthers have thrived in high-pressure moments, even well before the playoffs.
Verhaeghe and Tkachuk each had their own signature performances in the regular season as Florida scratched and clawed its way into the playoffs in the first place.
Tkachuk, just to list one of many, scored the game-winning goal with a minute to go in Washington to give the Panthers the last win of their six-game winning streak which helped them make the playoffs.
Verhaeghe lit the Columbus Blue Jackets up for four goals to take a crucial two points early in April.
They have been living this for months and it shows.
”We have been in this situation so many times during the year,” Verhaeghe said.
“Since January, we have been a desperate hockey teams and I think we know how much wins mean. We’re just playing desperate and we always find a way.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
GAME 4 (Vegas leads 2-1)
- When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 96.5 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: @Vegas 5, Florida 2; Game 2: @Vegas 7, Florida 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Vegas 2 (OT); Game 4: Saturday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5: Tuesday at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Friday June 16 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Monday June 19 at Vegas, 8 (TNT). * – If Necessary
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- Postseason History: First meeting
- How They Got Here — Vegas: d. Winnipeg in 5, Edmonton in 6, Dallas in 6; Florida: d. Boston in 7, Toronto in 5, Carolina in 4.