Verhaeghe OT goal has Florida Panthers up 2-0 on Tampa, & it may be panic time for Lightning | Opinion

Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said after his team’s Game 1 NHL playoff loss at the Florida Panthers, “There’s certainly no panic in here.”

They were down 2-0 in Game 2 Tuesday. How about now, Steve? Maybe just a little panic?

Not yet.

They tied it 2-2.

That was before the Panthers’ Carter Verhaeghe scored his fifth career playoff overtime game-winner -- one of only six players in NHL history with that many -- to make Florida a 3-2 winner and up 2-0 in this first-round best-of-7. It was a masterfully patient backhanded flick lifted high and angled in from just outside the crease.

“It just takes one shot in these moments,” said Verhaeghe.

“He’s got the clutch gene,” said teammate Aaron Ekblad.

“It’s certainly not a teachable thing,” said coach Paul Maurice.

And now?

Now it’s officially panic time for Stamkos and Tampa Bay.

It was the Lightning’s 10th loss in its past 11 overtime playoff games. And the Panthers’ 10th win in a row in playoff sudden death.

Stamkos had also said after Game 1: “You can change the narrative quick if you can go out there and win Game 2.”

Ah, so true. But if you don’t, that narrative begins to feel a tad like your death knell.

In NHL postseason history, teams have led a series by 2-0 on 403 prior occasions. Not a small sample. The team up 2-0 has gone on to win, 348 times to 55, or 86.4 percent.

That is the Cats’ historical likelihood now of advancing as the all-state series heads to Tampa for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Saturday evenings.

Still probably going to be a long series yada yada. Not over yet, and so forth. But you have to love Florida’s spot right now in this latest iteration of a great rivalry. It is feeling like retribution for the teams’ previous two playoff meetings, when the Lightning eliminated the Panthers by 4-2 in 2021 and by a 4-0 sweep in ‘22 sweep, both times also in the first round.

The Cats holding court in both games at home pretty much demands Tampa now had better do the same. If Florida pinches even one of the next two in Tampa it will return home with a chance to clinch in a Game 5.

The Panthers had handled the Lightning, 3-2, in Game 1, the score appearing closer than it really was because Tampa scored with only nine seconds remaining.

Tuesday night was another declarative by the division-winning Panthers:

Tampa’s more decorated young franchise history matters not today.

Florida is better. Maybe not by a lot.

But better.

The game was a wonderful advertisement for playoff hockey as the goaltenders, Russians Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilveskiy, put on a show.

Snapshot: 5:52 left in the second period of a 2-2 game. Tampa has an open-net shot for a 3-2 lead. Florida’s Bobrovsky, back to the shooter, dives across the goal mouth for a blind save as the puck caroms off his left forearm. Stunning. The crowd is chanting his name for the next minute.

“Was desperation to throw as much body as possible,” Bobrovsky described the lucky brilliance of the play.

Verhaeghe had the winning goal in sudden death OT Tuesday, but Bobrovsky won the game.

“It’s a big, big win for us,” said the goalie fans and teammates call Bob.

A hand injury to center Sam Bennett was the night’s only downer for the Cats.

Florida had led 1-0 on a Sam Bennett shot that saw Vasilveskiy jostled and out of position. Tampa challenged for goalie interference but lost, because a Tampa defender had knocked the Cat’s Matthew Tkachuk into the goalie.

Florida made it 2-0 with four seconds left on a power play with a goal by Vladimir Tarasenko, the Panthers’ big offseason addition -- Cats in command as the period ended.

But the game was just beginning.

Tampa was within 2-1 48 seconds into the second period on Brayden Point’s goal.

Tampa made it 2-2 five minutes later on Stamkos’ equalizer on a power play.

The goalies took over in a scoreless third period before Verhaeghe -- Playoff Carter -- made the horn blast and sent Cats fans deliriously into the night.

The series heads to Tampa with the Florida Panthers looking every bit a Stanley Cup contender.

And if there’s still no panic among the Lightning ... maybe there should be?