Unlikely heroes ignite Panthers’ stunning comeback from 3 down in third-period vs. Caps

·5 min read

Sam Reinhart saw a sliver of space between Ilya Samsonov and the right pipe, and took his chance. Everything else had gone the Florida Panthers’ way in this dominant third period, so why not a shot into this tiny window?

The Washington Capitals’ three-goal third-period lead was long gone after three goals in nine minutes and Reinhart made sure there was no settling for overtime in a meeting between two of the NHL’s best teams. Reinhart ripped the decisive shot into the net, flung his arms into the air in equal parts relief and exaltation, and welcomed a mob of teammates to celebrate with him. The Panthers, down by three with less than 17 minutes to go, won 5-4 on the forward’s game-winning goal with 14.4 seconds remaining.

“It was impressive. It shows the resilience of this group,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “The third period desperation level went up three or four notches. ... It was fun to watch.”

Florida (15-4-3) outshot the Capitals, 27-2, in the final period. It scored at even strength, shorthanded and twice on the power play. Ryan Lomberg sparked the comeback with 16:37 left and center Eetu Luostarinen, another fourth-line forward, ignited it with a shorthanded goal less than three minutes later. Forward Sam Bennett finally tied the game at 4-4 with 7:59 left when he deflected home a point shot by star defenseman Aaron Ekblad on the power play and Reinhart finished off the stunning win with another power-play goal in the final seconds.

Florida was on the brink of a seventh loss in 11 games. Instead, the Panthers’ second losing streak of the season is over after only two games and Florida, after losing its first home game of the season Saturday to the last-place Seattle Kraken, delivered the 12,365 at FLA Live Arena another memorable moment in a season already full of them.

“There’s always a belief in that room that we’re never out of the fight,” Lomberg said, “so as soon as that first domino felt we just kept our foot on the gas.”

For most of the first two periods, Washington (14-4-5) solidly outplayed Florida, outshooting the Panthers and generating the majority of scoring chances. It scored twice in an 11-second span in the first seven minutes and Florida was stuck playing behind for more than 47 minutes of game time.

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Less than four minutes into the fourth period, the comeback began.

It started with a one-timer by Lomberg. Right wing Patric Hornqvist won a puck out of a scrum on the right doorstep and flung it across the goal mouth to the left wing, who lunged forward to beat Samsonov with a one-timer. A few minutes later, the Panthers were on the penalty kill, and Lomberg and Luostarinen were again on the ice.

Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar generated a takeaway and the fourth-line forwards were off again. Lomberg, the fan favorite and recent recipient of a two-year extension, fired a long pass to Luostarinen and the center raced alone toward Samsonov. He saw a hole between the Capitals goaltender’s legs and trickled a five-hole tally into the gap to cut Washington’s lead to 4-3 with 13:51 left.

Luostarinen provided the secondary assist on Lomberg’s goal and Lomberg had the primary assist on Luostarinen’s.

“They were buzzing the whole night,” Brunette said.

By then, the momentum had swung and the Panthers could feel it. They got three power plays in the final 12 minutes and converted two of them into goals to complete the comeback, and win in regulation.

First, Bennett deflected in the game-tying goal on a point shot by Ekblad with 7:59 left and then Florida got one final power play with 56.9 seconds remaining because of goaltender interference.

The Panthers were patient. They knew their power play would carry over into overtime if they needed it. Reinhart made sure they didn’t.

Reinhart was Florida’s biggest offseason addition, acquired in a trade to play right wing on the top line next to star center Aleksander Barkov, only it hasn’t been the individual start Reinhart was hoping for. The Panthers pulled him off their first line after just two games and he’s bounced around the lineup since, scoring just four goals and 12 points in his first 21 games as a Panther.

There was no Barkov on Tuesday, though — he has been out with a left knee injury since Nov. 16 — and first-line winger Anthony Duclair missed his third straight game with a lower-body injury, too. Florida needed different heroes to beat Washington.

It got them in the form of the fourth line and Reinhart, whose fifth goal of the season provided a moment of joy not yet seen this season for the Panthers, even as their off to the best start in franchise history.

No team in the NHL this season had come back from three down at the end of the second period until Florida did against the first-place Capitals.

“It’s a fine line between frustration and waiting for your turn and being ready for it,” Reinhart said. “We’ve got a lot of depth and we’ve got a lot of speed that guys play and it’s infectious throughout the lineup, so we’ve got guys that are ready to step up when they’re counted on.”

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