WASHINGTON — Carter Verhaeghe wheeled his arm into a fist pump and suddenly, 2½ decades of frustration for the Panthers were over.
The forward — the hero of Florida’s first-round playoff series with Washington and a game-time decision — scored 2:46 into overtime and the Panthers beat the Capitals 4-3 to win the series in Game 6 on Friday night.
Florida got its first playoff series victory since 1996, when it reached the Stanley Cup final, ending the NHL’s record longest playoff drought between series wins, just short of 26 years, since June 1, 1996.
The Maple Leafs now own the longest active drought between playoff series wins, 18 years.
“It means a lot,” Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov said of ending the drought. “There’s been a lot of talk about this and not winning any rounds, getting knocked out in the first round and stuff like that. Of course you don’t think about that, but it’s there.
“It’s not there anymore, so we’re happy about that and happy to be a part of it. But there’s still a long way to go to the point where we actually want to be.”
The Panthers will have home-ice advantage for their next series against the winner of the Lightning-Maple Leafs series.
“They’re going to be big-time challenges,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “It will be a different kind of series.”
Florida looked to be on the verge of a regulation victory when Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling tripped Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom with 1:09 left in the third period. T.J. Oshie scored six seconds into the Washington power play to tie the score at 3 and send the sellout crowd of over 18,000 into a frenzy.
Those fans were silent after Verhaeghe scored his sixth goal of the series in overtime. The former Lightning forward got his third straight winning goal. He missed the morning skate and was considered a game-time decision.
Verhaeghe “dug in deep and found a way to get it done,” Brunette said.
Trade-deadline acquisition Claude Giroux and Barkov scored in the third period to put the Panthers ahead 3-2. Forward Ryan Lomberg scored Florida’s first goal, tying it 2:29 after forward Nic Dowd got the Capitals on the board in the second period.
The Capitals have not won a playoff series since hoisting the Cup in 2018 and got knocked out in the first round at home for the third time in that span.
“I think you see how we played against the best team in the regular season,” Washington’s Alex Ovechkin said. “We have it, but we just blow it away. It is on us. … It is on everybody.”
Said Oshie: “I don’t think the all-in aspect was quite there in the last couple years. This year, I think we were extremely close to being 100 percent everyone on board, and we let three games (in the series) get away from us.”
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