SUNRISE, Fla. — The Cardiac Cats are back.
The Florida Panthers‘ 3-2 overtime win in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night cut the Vegas Golden Knights‘ series lead to 2-1. Matthew Tkachuk tied the game with 2:13 left in regulation. Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into the extra session to win it and, in the process, pushed the Panthers’ overtime record to 7-0 in the playoffs.
Tkachuk said after two disastrous games in Vegas to open the series, the Panthers felt many didn’t believe they could rally in the series.
“I mean, they all counted us out before the Final even started,” Tkachuk said. “We’re that type of team where we know what the end goal [is]. We don’t know how we’re going to get there, but we’re going to do everything we can to get there.”
The victory didn’t just get Florida back in the series — it was a historic moment in franchise history. This was the Panthers’ first-ever win in a Stanley Cup Final game, having been swept by the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and losing the first two games of this series in Vegas.
“It’s amazing. I’m not gonna lie,” captain Aleksander Barkov, who has spent the first 10 years of his career with Florida, said. “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 and be battling for something you’ve been dreaming of since literally when I was born.”
At the heart of that winning effort were three players: Tkachuk, Verhaeghe and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, all of whom made the difference in Game 3.
Tkachuk factored in on both Panthers goals in regulation. He set up defenseman Brandon Montour for the game’s opening goal in the first period. It was the first point for Montour since Game 2 of the second round.
“That’s for my baby boy,” said Montour, who flew back from Las Vegas to Boca Raton between Games 1 and 2 to be with his wife, Ryian, as she delivered their son, Kai.
But Tkachuk’s night took a dramatic turn moments after Montour’s goal. Just 5:54 into the first period, Tkachuk received a pass in his own zone near the blue line. As he turned up ice, a streaking Keegan Kolesar put his shoulder into Tkachuk, knocking the Panthers star to the ice.
When he returned to the Panthers’ bench, Tkachuk was examined by a team trainer. He returned for a shift during a Panthers power play but then left the ice and the bench and didn’t take a shift for the rest of the period.
Panthers coach Paul Maurice confirmed that Tkachuk had been pulled from the game by NHL concussion spotters.
Tkachuk wasn’t on the Panthers’ bench to start the second period, but he returned to the ice 4:26 into the second.
“He’s going to come back no matter what,” Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”
Tkachuk kept battling right to the end of the third period, when he tied the game with Bobrovsky pulled. Seven of Tkachuk’s 11 goals this postseason have been scored in the third period or later.
For Vegas, it was the first time in 11 games in which it held a lead after the second period and lost. For coach Bruce Cassidy, it was only the second time in 27 career playoff games in which an opponent rallied to beat one of his teams when they entered the third period with a lead.
“Give them credit. They stuck around, they found a goal at the end and then they win in overtime,” Vegas star Jack Eichel said. “Obviously, you don’t want to blow a lead when you’re up a goal with a few minutes left, but it’s all part of it. Nobody said it was going to be easy.”
Verhaeghe’s overtime goal was just the latest historic moment for the winger. In the 2022 playoffs, his Game 6 overtime goal eliminated the Washington Capitals and gave the Panthers their first playoff series victory since 1996. Back in the first round this postseason, he scored the overtime winner in Game 7 at the Boston Bruins, completing one of the most shocking comeback series victories in NHL postseason history.
And Verhaeghe’s seventh of the playoffs handed Florida its first Stanley Cup Final win in franchise history.
“Over the course of his career, he has gotten a puck off his stick faster than somebody can react to it,” Maurice said. “When you get to overtime, nobody’s beefing you for a better play. Just shoot the damn puck.”
Finally, as the Cardiac Cats returned, so did Playoff Bob. After being pulled from Game 2, Bobrovsky was brilliant in Game 3 with 25 saves, stopping several high-danger Golden Knights chances.
“He was incredible for us, made some unreal saves in literally every period,” Barkov said. “He gave us a chance to win and we used that chance.”
Game 4 is scheduled for Saturday night in Sunrise. Tkachuk said the mission doesn’t change for the Panthers.
“Everybody will probably say how they were leading most of the game, which they were,” he said. “But at the end of the day, nobody cares how we got here. It’s a 2-1 series. We came into this game just to win one game and we did that. We’re going to do the exact same thing going into Game 4.”