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Verhaeghe’s offense, Tkachuk’s defense and more Panthers notables from Game 1 win vs. Lightning

Carter Verhaeghe tried to explain how the play unfolded that led to his go-ahead goal in the Florida Panthers’ 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in their opening round matchup of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sunday.

Florida was on a power play to start the third period. The Panthers entered the zone and Verhaeghe gave the puck to Aleksander Barkov.

Barkov held onto the puck for a moment in the right circle as the rest of the Panthers got into position. As Verhaeghe began to glide toward the net, Barkov threaded a pass that found Verhaeghe, who tapped the puck past Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy to put the Panthers up for good.

“I didn’t even see the pass,” Verhaeghe said. “I just stuck out my stick. That’s how well Barky can pass the puck. Just put it on Barky’s stick.”

That play was important for a few reasons.

First, it was the latest big moment for Verhaeghe. He has 16 career playoff goals with the Panthers, a franchise record and so many of them have come in the clutch. Of the 16, seven have come in the third period or overtime. Florida is also 12-2 in the playoffs when Verhaeghe scores a goal.

In the regular season this year, Verhaeghe scored 19 goals in the third period and had seven game-winning goals.

“Carter shows up when it matters,” forward Sam Reinhart said.

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Second, it’s a reminder that Verhaeghe hasn’t skipped a beat. The winger, who scored 33 goals in the regular season, missed two weeks at the end of the regular season due to injury. He scored a goal in his return in the regular-season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday and then followed up with the go-ahead goal on Sunday in Game 1 of the playoffs.

And third, it was a moment of validity for a Panthers power play that had struggled to close out the regular season. Florida ranked last in the NHL during the final 16 games of the regular season with just a 7.8 percent success rate on the power play — four goals in 51 opportunities with the man advantage.

“We’ve had some chances on the power play that haven’t gone and you need to feel at least good about your power play,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “It needs to keep momentum for you. That was probably the key part of the goal. It’s just we haven’t been able to get one behind anybody for the last little while. ... You want your shooters to feel good.”

Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mathew Dumba (24) go for the puck during the second period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 on Sunday, April 21, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla. The score was 1-1 at the end of the second period.
Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mathew Dumba (24) go for the puck during the second period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 on Sunday, April 21, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla. The score was 1-1 at the end of the second period.

Matthew Tkachuk’s defense

Panthers star winger Matthew Tkachuk is known for his tantalizing skills on offense and ability to get under his opponent’s skin.

But ever since he came to Florida in the blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames ahead of the 2022-23 season, he made it an emphasis to improve his defense so he can be counted on to play in key situations late in games.

The improvement got to the point where Maurice gave Tkachuk occasional minutes on the penalty kill when situations dictated it and had comfort with Tkachuk on the ice when the opponent pulls the goalie late in games for an extra attacker.

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Tkachuk scored an empty-net goal Sunday that ultimately served as the game-winning goal. He also had three empty-net goals during the regular season and assisted on six other empty-netters.

“I had a lot of work to do on the defensive side when I came down here from Calgary,” Tkachuk said. “I worked on that a lot, and I think just over last year’s playoff, fine-tuning in a little bit, especially come this time, it’s so important to be able to play both ends of the ice and be counted on in those situations. ... Hopefully, both sides, my offensive and defensive side, are peaking at the right time.”

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) looks up at the fans before the first period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, April 21, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) looks up at the fans before the first period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, April 21, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.

More Game 1 notables

Barkov registered his fifth career multiassist playoff game and his 10th multipoint playoff game overall. His 39 playoff points are the most in franchise history.

With an assist Sunday, Aaron Ekblad now has 12 career postseason assists with Florida, surpassing Robert Svehla (11) for the most in club history by a defenseman. Gustav Forsling also tied Svehla’s mark with an assist of his own Sunday.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 17 of 19 Lightning shots for his 30th career playoff win and 19th with Florida.

Maurice earned his 14th playoff win with Florida, surpassing Doug MacLean for most in club history by a head coach.