Stanley Cup Final: Panthers handed lifeline with dramatic Game 3 comeback win

Even when they seem down and out, do not give these Florida Panthers a chance.

Even when they seem down and out, do not give these Florida Panthers a chance. (Getty Images)
Carter Verhaeghe's overtime winner will surely give the Panthers a jolt in the Stanley Cup Final (Getty Images)

The quicksand nature of facing a deficit with the clock ticking down presents disparate psychological challenges for different teams.

Facing a nearly insurmountable 3-0 hole in the Stanley Cup Final with 133 seconds remaining in a pivotal Game 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Matthew Tkachuk burnished his reputation as the NHL’s most clutch player while the Florida Panthers remain undaunted with their season hanging in the balance. You can’t kill the Panthers until the final whistle blows, and though you could argue they were an undeserving winner on Thursday evening, life is sometimes unfair and Tkachuk’s snarling visage emphasizes this truism.

Tkachuk scored with the Panthers facing near-certain defeat, tucking the puck home into an empty cage after Carter Verhaeghe rocketed a slap shot onto Adin Hill’s pads, falling right into the pathway of the Hart Trophy finalist. During the first period, after he drew the lone assist on Brandon Montour’s opening goal, Tkachuk took a nasty, legal, shoulder-to-shoulder hit from Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar and missed a significant portion of the game.

We’ll learn about the extent of Tkachuk’s ailment after the series ends, but if his shoulder is held together with glue and duct tape at this point, his return to superstar form paved over the cracks in the Panthers’ arsenal. Tkachuk managed 17 minutes and 53 seconds of ice time and if the Panthers come back to win the Stanley Cup, consider this game as his Kirk Gibson moment.

“It’s the gutsiest win I’ve ever been a part of,” an exhausted Tkachuk told Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas post-game.

“Nobody cares how we got here. It’s a 2-1 series. We came into this game just wanting to win one game, and next game it’s the exact same thing.”

Verhaeghe scored the overtime winner and he’s a fitting hero, given how well he’s played throughout the playoffs while embodying the Panthers’ "band of castoffs" ethos. Considered an afterthought within the Maple Leafs and Lightning organizations, Verhaeghe authored a 42-goal regular season and his Game 3 winner was his seventh goal of the postseason. During a game where the Golden Knights’ best players were often superior to the Panthers’ — Jonathan Marchessault, Jack Eichel and Mark Stone were this close from submitting legacy games — the Panthers needed a timely response and they got one from Verhaeghe, a microwave scorer who registered his first goal since the opening game of the Eastern Conference final. And of course, it was Tkachuk who expertly screened Hill, skating vigilantly towards the net in the hope of scooping up an opportunistic rebound.

“We’re the Cats,” Verhaeghe said post-game via Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press. “We have whatever lives we have, but it’s awesome. It shows how great our team is and the guys on our team have no quit in them.”

Tkachuk and Verhaeghe both posted sub-40% shares of the expected goals at 5-on-5, but who cares when you score actual goals in the biggest moments in franchise history? Florida won its first-ever Stanley Cup Final game, after the 1996 iteration was swept by the Colorado Avalanche. This is trivial, of course. Verhaeghe was an infant and Tkachuk wasn’t even born yet. A new era has dawned for the Panthers.

If you’re a neutral party, you almost have to feel for the Golden Knights. Almost. Marchessault scored for the fourth consecutive game and appeared to have superseded any Panthers’ candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but after Tkachuk’s heroics, it’s a wide-open race. Vegas was far superior on the power play, scoring twice on six tries — Mark Stone tipped home a Marchessault shot from the point to even the game at 1-1 entering the first intermission. It was more deliberate with its chances at even strength. And yet, Florida is still alive with nary a power play goal in the Final. At some point, the Panthers will regress to the mean on the power play and more simply, you cannot give this team any life. Florida has shown a pesky tendency to improve as it gets acquainted with its opponent and Vegas squandered a golden opportunity, pun partially intended.

Florida’s seven overtime wins are tied for the second-most in playoff history. Pressure manifests itself in different ways for different teams, but for Tkachuk, Verhaeghe and the Panthers, it’s a comforting element. You cannot kill Tkachuk and the Panthers until the final whistle blows and 133 seconds away from facing a potential sweep, we now have a compelling series again.