It was the sort of moment the Florida Panthers have been looking for all season: They were desperate, down by a goal to the team their chasing for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference, and Carter Verhaeghe was suddenly flying toward the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goal without another skater in front of him.
The forward is always a flash — maybe the fastest player on the active roster — and he was almost too quick for his own good as the final minutes ticked away in Pennsylvania. After scooping up a misplayed puck in his offensive zone, Verhaeghe was dashing past Casey DeSmith and out of room until he wasn’t. He crossed the end line, slammed on the breaks and tapped the puck back around the nearest post. The Panthers had a game-tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation and, ultimately, a crucial point in their quest to get to the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. Although it was a 7-6 loss in overtime in Pittsburgh, Florida finished its most grueling stretch of the season with points in 5 of 6 games to stay four points behind the Penguins and Washington Capitals in the race for the East wild cards.
The Panthers, in a game with four lead changes and multiple ill-timed penalties, salvaged a point despite playing with their third-string goaltender and without their second-line center on the second night of a back-to-back set.
A high-sticking call against star defenseman Brandon Montour with 1:34 left in overtime ultimately robbed Florida (23-21-6) of a chance to get a win. Star defenseman Kris Letang scored a power-play with 53.1 seconds left in the extra session to send the crowd at PPG Paints Arena into a frenzy at the end of one of the wildest games of the 2022-23 NHL season.
The Penguins (24-15-8) fired 49 shots at goaltender Alex Lyon and the Panthers shot 39 at Pittsburgh goaltender Casey DeSmith. Florida blew three leads, including a two-goal lead in the first period, and also erased a first-period deficit. In all, the Panthers and Penguins combined for 159 shot attempts, 80 scoring chances and 40 high-danger chances. Both teams even played without reserve goaltenders, as Spencer Knight and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry were both absent from their teams benches, meaning Lyon and DeSmith both had to weather whatever their opponent sent at them.
For Florida, it meant sticking with its third-stringer even after Lyon gave up three straight goals — and made 11 saves — at the end of the first period and still the Panthers almost managed to win. After a 2-0 lead for Florida turned into a 3-2 deficit, Verhaeghe scored with 40.8 seconds left in the first period to send the game into the first intermission tied 3-3. Florida didn’t trail again until the third period, getting a short-handed goal from star defenseman Aaron Ekblad with 9:26 left in the second period to go up 4-3 and a clutch goal from forward Colin White, who was in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 14, with 15:50 left in the third to go up 5-4.
All the Panthers’ unfavorable circumstances -- the emergency goalie, the back-to-back and, perhaps above all else, the 11 games in 19 days -- caught up to them in the third, though. The Penguins got a game-tying goal with 9:31 to go and a go-ahead goal on a power play with 5:30 left in the third to go up 6-5.