SUNRISE, Fla. — The Vegas Golden Knights had the dagger in their collective hands and were poised to thrust it into the Florida Panthers.
With less than three minutes remaining in the third period of Game 3 at FLA Live Arena on Thursday, they had a one-goal lead against their struggling hosts and were just a handful of shifts away from taking a commanding lead in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final.
Given that the only team in NHL history to come back from a three-game deficit in the Final was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings, the odds of bringing the franchise its first Stanley Cup championship were about to increase exponentially.
Instead, it excruciatingly slipped away.
“We just couldn’t put the nail in the coffin, sort of speak,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said.
Indeed, with Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on the bench for a sixth skater, forward Matthew Tkachuk scored the equalizer with 2:13 remaining. Then, it was Tkachuk’s teammate, Carter Verhaeghe who completed the comeback when he scored against Vegas goalie Adin Hill at 4:27 of overtime to give the Panthers a 3-2 win, narrowing the Golden Knights’ series lead to 2-1.
So close, yet so far. Vegas was 137 seconds away from a commanding lead. Instead, the Panthers have life.
“We would have loved to win this game,” Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We were a couple of minutes away.”
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They had their chances.
Imagine, for a moment, if forward Ivan Barbashev‘s shot with 4:18 remaining had been an inch lower. Instead of hitting the crossbar, it would have given Vegas a two-goal cushion.
But that missed opportunity set the stage for Tkachuk, who scored on a juicy rebound in front of Hill.
“We just didn’t have the numbers back there,” Cassidy said when asked about the tying goal. “We’re going to keep talking about how you recover back there as soon as pucks are out of your possession.”
Tkachuk is no stranger to heroics, having scored four game-winners this postseason. But his tying goal proved to be equally as important.
“They hung around and did a good job,” Cassidy said. “They got to the front. They’ve done it before. So, you’ve got to give them their share of credit.”
Still, it wasn’t as if Vegas didn’t have life. In fact, when Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling took a tripping penalty with 12 seconds left in regulation, the Golden Knights entered overtime with 1:48 of power-play time remaining.
Once again, they couldn’t capitalize.
“You know, obviously you’d have loved to have one there,” center Jack Eichel said.
Cue Verhaeghe’s heroics.
Just 2:39 after Forsling left the penalty box, Panthers forward Sam Bennett crossed the Vegas blue line, then fed the puck to Verhaeghe in the high slot. From the bench, it looked like an innocent play to Cassidy.
In the end, though, with a flick of Verhaeghe’s wrists, it was anything but.
“I don’t know if Tkachuk deflected it or it was a flash screen because normally that’s a shot we’re going to give up, get a save and move on,” Cassidy said. “It wasn’t like an odd-man rush through the middle.
“So, I didn’t mind the way we defended it.”
Except for the fact that it went in. And now the Panthers have life instead of being on life support.
“You obviously don’t want to blow a lead when you’re up a goal with two minutes left,” Eichel said. “But it’s all part of it.
“I mean, nobody said it’s easy.”