‘That guy’s a gamer’: Panthers’ Carter Verhaeghe continues trend of clutch goals

FORT LAUDERDALE — Carter Verhaeghe is not the Florida Panthers‘ captain or a Selke Trophy winner like Aleksander Barkov. He is not a 50-goal scorer like Sam Reinhart. And he doesn’t have the same penchant for annoying opponents like Matthew Tkachuk.

But the Florida forward has been the backbone of the Panthers’ two Stanley Cup Final runs in 2023 and 2024, becoming the franchise’s all-time postseason goal leader. He displayed his ability to show up in big moments Saturday night, scoring the opening goal in the Panthers’ 3-0 Game 1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.

“I’m used to (his clutch goals), I guess,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said after the game. “He is an unusual performer, that man. He is so good in the most intense and almost chaotic play. He can raise that level. I don’t know that I have much to say about it because I don’t know that I fully understand it. Clearly, if there was something there I could pass along to somebody else, I would do that, as well.

“That guy’s a gamer.”

Verhaeghe was not a top draft pick who got to the NHL immediately. He had to work his way to the top ranks, spending six seasons in the OHL, AHL and ECHL before cracking the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup in 2019-20. He played 52 games for Tampa Bay that season, helping the Lightning win the 2020 Stanley Cup in the Edmonton pandemic bubble.

“You can’t really control where you play sometimes, and (the AHL and ECHL) weren’t exactly where I wanted to be,” Verhaeghe said. “Obviously, I had to prove myself and work extra hard and kind of prove to everyone I could play at another level.”

After playing 52 games for the Lightning in 2019-20, Verhaeghe left Tampa and signed with the Panthers as a free agent. He quickly became a key offensive contributor. Maurice said the forward’s time grinding in the minor leagues turned Verhaeghe into the player he has become.

“I think maybe what I love the most was that it was not an easy path to the National Hockey League,” Maurice said. (He) had to fight for all of it to get there. I think he trained himself to be wired in games the entire game, and that’s why when he gets into the bigger games, that’s how he operates. … When it’s wired and it’s on, that’s his wheelhouse.”

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Three seasons later, Verhaeghe has grown into a star. He has 118 goals and 118 assists in four seasons with Florida. Verhaeghe, who fans call “Swaggy,” led the Panthers with 42 goals last year. During last season’s run to the Stanley Cup, Verhaeghe scored four game-winning goals.

Although Reinhart eclipsed him with 57 goals this season, Verhaeghe still finished second on the team with 34. Verhaeghe has scored 10 goals in the postseason, entrenching himself as the team’s all-time playoff goal leader; he leads Reinhart (19), Barkov (17) and Tkachuk (16) in that category.

The standout forward has continued performing in the clutch, scoring a pair of game-winning goals in the first three rounds of the 2024 playoffs before getting the only goal Florida needed on Saturday. Verhaeghe has five overtime playoff goals, which is tied for third-most in NHL history. He trails only Hall of Famers Maurice Richard (six) and Joe Sakic (eight).

“He’s definitely an elite player,” Barkov said. “He has elite speed and goal-scoring ability. He works on it every single day, so there’s no surprise on that. He has that goal-scoring mindset that he wants to shoot the puck. He wants to shoot it.”

Florida Panthers take Game 1 of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final | PHOTOS