June 10, 1996. Nearly 26 years to the day. That was the last time that the Florida Panthers hosted a Stanley Cup Final game; the memorable 1-0 triple overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche that completed a four-game sweep. Though the Panthers fans were happy to see the Cup Final at their place for the first time since that exact date, they know that they would be even happier with something that the team hasn't had: a win in a Cup Final game. The Panthers entered Game Three down 2-0 against the Vegas Golden Knights, and becoming the second team in NHL history to lose their first six Cup Final games, joining the St. Louis Blues (who lost their first 13) on that short list.
The opening period was quiet, and that's an understatement. Only 11 shots on goal were fired in the game's first 20 minutes--6-5 overall in favor of Vegas. Two of them went in; first, Brandon Montour opened the scoring, marking the second time in this series that Florida scored the first goal. Montour's goal came at 4:08, but later on at 16:03, Mark Stone tied it up, a 4-on-3 power play goal. After 20 minutes, it's 1-1, and late in the 2nd, it's--guess who?--Jonathan Marchessault. Another PPG, making it 2-1 for Vegas. Seriously, Marchessault's really bucking for that Conn Smythe should Vegas win this. The goal is his 13th of this year's playoffs.
Vegas leads 2-1 after 40, and at this point, even though it's a one goal game, I sense the end for the Panthers. The third period sees a lot of nothing, and with under three minutes left, the Panthers pull Bobrovsky for the extra attacker. The sextet hustles, and it pays off, and it's the usual suspect: Matthew Tkachuk. At 17:47, with the extra attacker, Tkachuk taps it into an open net, and the game is tied. Overtime is inevitable, but it comes at a slight cost for the Panthers. With 11.2 left in regulation, a tripping call (a very suspect one) called against Florida. Vegas starts OT with 1:48 left on the power play, but the Panthers end up killing the rest of it. So it's back to five-on-five, Vegas had two shots on goal, but Florida gains control. Gustav Forsling (who was called for the penalty) passes the puck to Sam Bennett, who gets it to Carter Verhaeghe, who fires a one-timer right past Adin Hill.
The Panthers won Game Three, 3-2, in overtime, and we now have a series! A lot of history made here, for one, this is the Panthers' first-ever Cup Final game win in franchise history, and this is their seventh OT win in the 2023 playoffs--in fact, they're 7-0 in the extra frame. Carter Verhaeghe's OT winner is his fourth career playoff OT goal, which is a Panthers franchise record. He had two in 2022, and has two this year. Matthew Tkachuk picked up a goal and an assist in the victory, another comeback win for the Panthers. This is what brought the Panthers to the Cup Final, and also brought them to their most successful run in the team's 30-year history, as they have won 13 games in this current run--they won 12 in the 1996 playoffs.
Regarding OT in the Cup Final, this is the fourth straight Cup Final to feature at least one overtime game, and with Florida's win, this year's Final is the 24th straight to not end in a sweep. The 1998 Final remains the last one to end in four games, with the Detroit Red Wings sweeping the Washington Capitals. As for this year's series, again, it's a series now. Florida saved themselves from certain doom. A loss would have meant the end for the Panthers, but this win gives them hope. Game Four is Saturday in Sunrise, and the Panthers have a golden opportunity to even this thing, which would earn them one final home game this season.
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