A split second and a few inches was all it took.
Carter Verhaeghe lifted the Florida Panthers to a 3-2 overtime win Monday at Capital One Arena in Game 4 of a Stanley Cup playoff series against the Capitals, but it was the moments that directly preceded his goal, and the overtime period in general, that stung the most.
With Washington leading late in regulation and the Panthers' net empty, Garnet Hathaway’s ice-length shot hit the outside of the cage and went wide. The Panthers tied the game seconds later. Marcus Johansson had a chance to put the Panthers away for good with a breakaway attempt late in the game, but Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky came up big with a pad save to keep the Panthers in the game.
Then Verhaeghe, with a crowded crease in front of Ilya Samsonov in overtime, was a step quicker than Capitals defenders to a rebound chance as he buried the winner to flip the series in a matter of seconds, just when it seemed the game, and the series, was headed the other direction.
“In third period, it was everything in our hands,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “Eventually, that’s how it is. We’re going to play best-of-three right now. There is no panic. Still pretty good chance.”
"Told It Here!" Podcast | Listen and Subscribe | Watch on YouTube
For a series that’s headed back to the Sunshine State tied at 2-2, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of a world where the Capitals are 60 minutes away from eliminating the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
The Capitals, though, say they’re not letting that impact them as they look to regain the series lead once again on Wednesday in Game 5.
“At the end, it was bad bounces and it goes in,” Alex Ovechkin said. “As I said, it is going to be a tough, long series so move on. Forget about it, move on.”
In a series that’s had momentum swing violently after every game, it’s been nothing out of the ordinary to see a team rebound. Each time the Capitals have won a game, the Panthers have answered with two strong performances.
The Capitals’ challenge now to bounce back and stay calm, though, might be the toughest challenge either team has faced this series.
Washington led with just over 10 minutes left to play in the third period after a Kuznetsov breakaway goal and it seemed like, despite a poor offensive showing, it would escape a handful of negatives with a victory and a commanding series lead.
Then Johansson got stopped, Hathaway missed by inches and Sam Reinhart tied the game with 2:04 left to play.
The Capitals finished the game with just 16 shots, the lowest total for either team in four games thus far, as they couldn’t sustain enough zone time to give themselves breathing room for the finish.
“We have to play more over there and we have to support each other and get some more zone time,” Kuznetsov said. “I felt like in the third period, it was little better. We’ll make some adjustments for sure and move on from there.”
Game 5 will be Wednesday, when the Capitals will look to put their stinging overtime defeat behind them and push the Panthers to the brink of elimination for a Game 6 on Friday at Capital One Arena.
While it’s felt as if the series through four games has had enough storylines for seven games, the Capitals will head to Florida with almost as many questions to answer as when they began the series.
The two most pressing are the health of forward Tom Wilson, and how they’ll respond after their first overtime loss of the season.
And as it turns out, the answer to both questions might end up being the same.
“When we won the Cup, we missed (Tom Wilson), we missed Backy, everybody was into the game,” Ovechkin said. “Right now, it is same thing. No panicking. It is playoffs, so everybody has to be ready for everything.”
All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.