Cote: Exhilaration to heartache as Rangers beat Panthers 5-4 in OT for 2-1 East finals lead | Opinion

It was the Florida Panthers’ first home game in almost two weeks on Sunday, the first in 13 days, owing to the break after the Boston series.

“We missed our home crowd,” said Matthew Tkachuk.

The Cats didn’t wait long to give their cheering fans a welcome-home gift. It was Sam Reinhart’s backhander in close on a pass from Tkachuk that made the horn sound on a power-play score with NHL Eastern Conference final Game 3 vs. the New York Rangers only 2 minutes and 50 seconds old.

The day-into-night of undulating emotion was just getting started. Regulation time could not contain it. Overtime was required. Exhilaration and exhaustion were sparring.

Hockey games don’t get much better. More thrilling for the victor. More aching for the other.

The reasons to cheer would go back and forth from Panthers fans in home red to the large minority of Rangers faithful in blue.

The fans in blue would cheer last.

And this one hurts.

The Rangers’ Alex Wennberg scored on a tip-in 5:35 into OT for a 5-4 victory and 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 Tuesday night back in the Sunrise rink.

Florida led 37-23 in shots on goal, dominated overall. So some may ask: How could the Panthers possibly lose that game!? Easy answer: Um, have you watched hockey before? A defensive lapse or two, shots off the pipe or wide, voila. You lose a game you should-a won. [Bleep] happens.

Florida had been 3-0 this postseason following a defeat, but, after an overtime loss in the previous game, was unable to work that magic again in yet another extra-time loss.

Now the Panthers -- with hopes of a Stanley Cup championship wobbling -- will have all of the pressure on them Tuesday night.

Teams up 2-1 in NHL playoff history win the series 69.1 percent of the time.

A Cats victory Tuesday to level the series is not a must-win literally but will feel like one realistically.

Another loss would make it a 3-1 series hole with two of the last three game including Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

Impossible climb? No. But one Florida should be desperate to avoid.

Down 4-2 entering the third period, the Panthers found a reservoir of resolve.

Captain Aleksander Barkov scored on a tip-in 5:04 into the period to make it 4-3. His hands and stick are so deadly in close, fishing out a puck in traffic.

Less than two minutes later at 6:58 defenseman Gustav Forsling’s slapshot tied it 4-4.

Right then Panthers fans were standing, twirling white giveaway towels overhead in a blizzard and making a sonic sound -- more noise than we have heard in the home barn this whole postseason.

After that a Panthers power play was an all-out assault that saw nine shots taken, but none land.

Because Florida so dominated the third, the OT loss after that comeback made this one especially hard to take for the Panthers.

Sometimes you want to forget and move on quickly from a loss, but Cats coach Paul Maurice said his team maybe needed to suffer this one for a minute.

“Sometimes you wanna keep the growl,” as he put it afterward. “There’s times you want to keep it, and eat it, and let it burn. Find a different energy source. Put up what we put up tonight and not come away with a win, you should be a little growly.”

He meant growly as in mad at yourself. A few defensive lapses really hurt.

“You can say we dominated but then look at the mistakes that led to their goals,” said Reinhart. “Defense is always our first instinct...”

On the other end, noted Maurice, “Most of our offense was off shin pads or wide of the post.”

After that early Cats lead Sunday the cheering heard next was from those fans in blue -- and twice within 25 seconds.

New York leveled it 1-1 when Alexis Lafreniere beat Sergei Bobrovsky 1-on-1 on an even-strength breakaway at 7:17 in.

The visiting fans were hardly done cheering when they had reason to again at 7:42 on Barclay Goodwin’s tip-in near the crease. (Goodwin had scored the overtime winner for NYR two nights earlier in Game 2.)

Reinhart’s second goal in an eventful opening period tied it 2-2 -- again on a power play -- with a backhander near the crease that nutmegged Igor Shesterkin after a feed from Carter Verhaeghe. Reinhart led all Cats with 57 goals in the regular season and was a power-play monster who led the NHL in man-advantage scores.

Reinhart became only the third Florida player with multiple goals in a playoff game, joining current his teammate Tkachuk and distant Cat Stephen Weiss. And Reinhart’s goals came on the minimum two shot attempts.

They call him “Rhino,” and he had the horn out sharp Sunday, and made it blast loud -- twice.

But it wasn’t enough.

The night that might have been about Reinhart’s double instead took on a different script.

New York regained the lead 3-2 at 15:23 of the second period on Lafreniere’s second goal of the game on a backhander in close. The home crowd had just finished a “Bob-by!” chant for a great Bobrovsky save when Lafreniere hit the mute button.

It was 4-2, visitors, at 18:14 on Goodrow’s second goal, this on a slapshot that flat beat Bobrovsky from distance. And this one really hurt. It was shorthanded, with Florida in the midst of a four-minute power play that spanned the periods.

“You don’t want to give up those,” said Barkov.

That set the stage for Florida’s third period heroics with those two goals to tie and enough shots to make you think the Cats needed to win this one in regulation.

It would go to overtime, alas.

That was where the heartache was waiting for the home team.

And the fans in blue were cheering last.