Verhaeghe OT hero again, Panthers claw back into Final with Game 3 win

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers had waited for a moment like this since they joined the NHL in 1993-94.

Carter Verhaeghe fired a wrist shot from the slot in overtime of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final before an over-capacity crowd of 19,735 at FLA Live Arena on Thursday.

The puck rose past the glove of goalie Adin Hill and hit the back of the net at 4:27, giving the Panthers a 3-2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights — the first Cup Final win in their history.

As the horn sounded and the fans roared, Verhaeghe’s teammates mobbed him against the glass.

The Panthers were about to fall behind 3-0 in the best-of-7 series. But then Matthew Tkachuk scored with the goalie pulled at 17:47 and Verheaghe came through in OT, and suddenly they had clawed back into it.

The Golden Knights’ lead is down to 2-1 entering Game 4 here on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; TNT, TBS, truTV, CBC, SN, TVAS).

“If you’re playing at this time of year, it’s moments like that that keep you alive and keep you playing,” Panthers forward Sam Reinhart said. “There’s no one that rises more to the occasion than that guy. It’s incredible.”

Video: VGK@FLA, Gm3: Verhaeghe sends in wrister in OT

How many times has Verhaeghe been the hero for Florida?

Over the past two seasons, he leads the NHL in game-winning goals (seven) and overtime goals (four) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The forward scored the overtime winner when the Panthers defeated the Washington Capitals 4-3 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round last season, winning a playoff series for the first time since 1996.

He scored the overtime winner when they defeated the Boston Bruins 4-3 in Game 7 of the first round this season, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and taking down the team that had set NHL records for wins (65) and points (135) in the regular season.

“He’s one of those guys who just has that in him,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He has an incredible shot. Whenever he shoots, it’s dangerous, no matter from where he’s shooting. To have that guy on the ice in overtime is always dangerous. I will give the puck to him any time.”

This goal might have been his biggest — the biggest in Florida history.

This is the Panthers’ first appearance in the Cup Final since 1996, when they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. They lost Games 1 and 2 on the road, outscored 10-2 over the last four periods.

Game 3 was the first Cup Final game at FLA Live Arena, a building that had opened in 1998.

Flo Rida played a concert in the parking lot before the game. Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino banged the big drum before the team took the ice. Three F-16s flew over the watch party outside after the United States national anthem.

The fans twirled rally towels and made noise to rival most any other crowd in the League.

“It’s amazing,” said Barkov, who has been with the Panthers since they selected him No. 2 in the 2013 NHL Draft. “I’m not going to lie. I’ve been here for a long time, and this is the best time in my life right now to play in front of that crowd.”

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A loss would have been yet another letdown for Florida, and the Panthers didn’t play all that well. They took too many penalties, gave up two power-play goals and fell behind 2-1 at 14:59 of the second period. They went 0-for-5 on the power play.

But a win?

That gave everyone here a moment to remember, at minimum, and hope that the Panthers can rally yet again and create more memorable moments.

“To win in overtime in front of our home fans,” Verhaeghe said, “it gives us a little bit of momentum.”

This is a team that was nine points out of a playoff spot in late December and earned the second wild card in the East.

This is a team that came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Bruins.

This is a team that went on an 11-1 run to make the Cup Final, eliminating three of the top four teams in the NHL in the regular season: the Bruins (first), the Carolina Hurricanes (second) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (fourth).

As bleak as it looked against the Golden Knights on Thursday, the Panthers pulled it off.

What if they pull it off again Saturday?

“Everybody will probably say how they were leading most of game, which they were, but at the end of the day, nobody cares how we got here,” Tkachuk said. “It’s a 2-1 series. We came into this game just to win one game, and we did that, and we’re going to do the exact same thing going into Game 4.”

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