Carter Verhaeghe windmilled his fist, dropped to a knee and roared, and, suddenly, two and a half decades of frustration were over for the Florida Panthers with a 4-3, overtime win against the Washington Capitals.
The forward — the hero all throughout the series and a game-time decision as to whether he’d even play in Game 6 — darted for Claude Giroux, who joined the Panthers ahead of the trade deadline to chase a Stanley Cup and teed up Verhaeghe for the game winner. He got wrapped in a bear hug by Aleksander Barkov — who has captained Florida for four years and had never won a postseason series before Friday — and he stretched out his arms to hug Jonathan Huberdeau, who has been a Panther longer than anyone else and was the first person off the bench to join the celebration after Florida finally won a postseason series.
The drought is finally over. The Panthers are going to the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs after beating the Capitals, 4-2, in their opening-round series.
“We’ve never won a round,” Huberdeau said. “This was important to us.”
It might not sound like much, but it’s a moment South Florida has waited 26 years to see. When the Panthers last won a postseason series, Huberdeau was 2, Barkov hadn’t yet celebrated his first birthday, and star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar weren’t even six months old. Interim coach Andrew Brunette was still mostly toiling in the American Hockey League — he played his first 11 NHL games for Washington in 1996 — and general manager Bill Zito had just decided to move from a legal career to work as an agent. Even Giroux, now a wily veteran at 34, was only 8.
Florida reached the Stanley Cup playoffs six more times between then and now, and bowed out in the first round every time. Huberdeau, Barkov and Ekblad — drafted in the top three in three consecutive NHL Entry Drafts from 2012-2014 — never even got one of those ill-fated first-round series to seven games. Until Friday, nearly a decade of those three stars yielded nothing more than a few All-Star appearances, a handful of good regular seasons and a series of — quite frankly — unimpressive franchise records.
Finally, they’re moving on. All it took was the best team in franchise history, an all-time great offense and, of course, a couple comebacks.
After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time and averaging more than four goals per game in the regular season, the Panthers quickly slipped to the verge of a collapse. They lost the first and third games in the series, and were 2:04 away from losing Game 4 before Florida scored with its goaltender pulled to force overtime.
The Panthers completed their first comeback in overtime to even the series Monday, then they stormed back from three goals down in the second period Wednesday to win Game 5 and take the series lead. With the chance to clinch Friday, they twice came came back from a goal down to stun the 18,573 at Capital One Arena in Washington with a third straight come-from-behind victory.
In the regular season, Florida tied an NHL record with 29 come-from-behind wins. Now the Panthers have 32.
“People say the ‘Comeback Cats’ and I’m not sure that’s what I see,” said Brunette, who was forced into his role less than seven months ago when former coach Joel Quenneville resigned amid revelations about his role in the mishandling of a 2010 sexual-assault accusation. “I see guys that get hit and they don’t fall down, and then they start hitting back and they showed that throughout this whole series.”
In Game 6, it took two comebacks and the mettle to regroup after nearly collapsing themselves.
Florida fell behind 1-0 in the first period, then answered 2:29 later on a goal by left wing Ryan Lomberg, who played for the first time since Game 1 after Brunette decided to bench struggling winger Anthony Duclaiar. The Panthers fell behind 2-1 in the first two minutes of the second period, then again answered 6:41 later when Giroux sniped a wrist shot over Samsonov’s left shoulder.
Their toughest challenge, though, came after Barkov gave them a lead with 5:43 left. After he scored on a feed from Giroux, Barkov rose his hands into the air and a mouth-open, ear-to-ear smile swallowed his face. Florida was on the verge of history and he knew it.
“Nine years here, I haven’t been to the second round,” the 26-year-old Finn said later. “I’m not going to lie: It feels amazing.”
History, however, would have to wait. With 1:03 left in regulation, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie stunned Florida with a game-tying, power-play goal. With its goalie pulled, Washington created a 6-on-4 advantage and delivered. After they were mere seconds away from finally advancing, the Panthers had to head back to their dressing room for 15 minutes to try to figure out how they would win in overtime.
“There wasn’t any panic,” Lomberg said. “We weren’t down. We were just excited to get back out there and finish the job.”
With 17:14 left in the first overtime, Verhaeghe did. A strong forecheck kept the Capitals from clearing the puck and Giroux wound up with it beyond the goal line. The versatile All-Star forward waited until Verhaeghe crashed toward the net and fired a game-winning assist.
Verhaeghe, who’s making just $1 million this year after Zito gave him his first chance to be an NHL regular back in 2019, finished the series with 12 points — a single-series record for Florida — and Giroux contributed to each of the Panthers’ last three goals.
Both have been to Stanley Cup Finals before — Verhaeghe was a bit player on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2019 title team and Giroux went to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals with the Philadelphia Flyers — and Zito added them in part because of this experience, even when it cost a pair of first-round picks to land Giroux from the Flyers and defenseman Ben Chiarot from the Montreal Canadiens. As talented as Barkov and Co. are, they needed help to finally do something in the Cup playoffs.
For a long time, the teams just weren’t good and the Panthers were never real contenders. In the last two years, they’ve transformed into one of the best teams in the league and a loss in this series — to a No. 8 seed after winning the Presidents’ Trophy — would have been a nightmare, especially after the rival Lightning upset them in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s all part of the process.
“You’ve got to go through them a few times to really get the feel of it,” said Brunette, 48. “You have to have heartbreaks. You have to have things that don’t go your way and you can find how hard it is and understand it and be resilient. And when you see the reward that they saw tonight, it’s all worth it.”
Florida will take Saturday off while it waits to find out its second-round opponent — either Tampa Bay or the Toronto Maple Leafs — and then it will be on to Round 2, where the Panthers will be the favorite again.
After all, they were the best team in the league and closed Round 1 with three straight wins. Giroux said he believes they have momentum. Barkov said the celebration was short because everyone just wanted to get home and get back to work. Huberdeau said the new mission is obvious.
“Now,” the 28-year-old Canadian said, “we might as well go all the way.”