WASHINGTON (AP) — Jonathan Huberdeau couldn’t remember what it was like to be on the smiling side of a handshake line.
The feelings were so strong after he and the Florida Panthers beat the Washington Capitals 4-3 in overtime Friday night to win Game 6 and advance to the second round that Huberdeau is looking to repeat it over and over.
“We didn’t know what it felt like,” he said. “Now we might as well go all the way.”
That’s a long way off, but getting out of the first round was a strong first step for the Presidents’ Trophy winners, who won the franchise’s first playoff series since 1996. Ending that drought at 26 took rebound from the Capitals, leveling the score with 1:03 left in regulation and getting another big goal from top scorer Carter Verhaeghe 2:46 in overtime to continue.
Florida will take on the cross-border rival – and back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – or the Toronto Maple Leafs in the next round. They will face each other on Saturday in Game 7 of that series.
“It will be a big challenge,” said interim coach Andrew Brunette. “It’s going to be a different kind of series.”
This series included the Panthers coming from behind to win the last three games. After Ryan Lomberg equalized in the second period on his return to the lineup, Claude Giroux’s trade deadline takeover tied things up in the third period and captain Aleksander Barkov gave them the lead before TJ Oshie’s power-up. play goal sent the match to OT.
After a league-high 29 regular-season comeback wins and a dose of adversity in a tougher run than many had anticipated, the Panthers were not shocked by the sudden turn of events.
“We were just confident,” Huberdeau said. “We know we can score some goals. Of course they tied it up, but that’s hockey. That’s how it went like we won here last time, so that was the same. Obviously we were tied down, and that’s it kind of a team that we are and we showed that.”
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Verheaghe’s OT goal was his team-leading sixth of the series and came after he missed the morning skate and was considered a pre-match decision. Brunette said Verhaeghe “digged deep and found a way to get it done.”
That goes for the whole team. Haunted by a reputation for losing in the playoffs, Florida’s core consisting of Huberdeau, Barkov and top defender Aaron Ekblad, who had fallen three times short, finally got a sense of what it’s like to win a series.
“It means a lot,” Barkov said. “There’s been a lot of talk about it and not winning rounds, knocking out in the first round and stuff like that. Of course you don’t think about it, but it’s there. It’s gone, so we’re happy about that and happy to be a part of it. But there is still a long way to go to where we really want to be.”
The Capitals got there in 2018 and won the organization’s first Stanley Cup title. They have not won a playoff series since then and were knocked out in the first round at home for the third time in that period.
“I think you see how we played against the best team in the regular season,” said Washington captain Alex Ovechkin. “We have it, but we’re just blowing it away. It’s ours. †
The Panthers’ most recent win came on June 1, 1996, when they defeated Pittsburgh in Game 7 to advance to the Finals. They were swept across Colorado and embarked on what would begin a 26-year wait between series wins.
Aside from the Seattle Kraken expansion, every other NHL franchise had won at least two series during that period. Detroit won 27, Pittsburgh 24, Tampa Bay 22 and Colorado won 20. Florida kept waiting, waiting for just one, until Friday.
“These things, you have to go through them a few times to really feel it,” said Brunette. “You must be heartbroken. You have to have things that don’t go the way you want and you can find out how hard it is and understand it and be resilient and when you see the reward like they saw tonight it was all worth it.”
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