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 extra time on Friday night to win Game 6 and move on to round two that Huberdeau wants to do it again and again.
“We didn’t know how it felt,” he said. “Now we might as well go all the way.”
It’s a long way off, but getting out of the first round was an important first step for Presidents’ Trophy winners who have won the franchise’s first playoff series since 1996. Ending that drought at age 26 required a rebound of the Capitals. they equalized the score with 1:03 from the end of the regulation and getting another great goal from top scorer Carter Verhaeghe 2:46 in extra time to move forward.
Florida will face inter-state rival – and two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – or the Toronto Maple Leafs in the next round. On Saturday they face off in Race 7 of that series.
“They are going to be big challenges,” said interim manager Andrew Brunette. “It’s going to be a different kind of series.”
This series included the Panthers bouncing back from a disadvantage to win their last three games. After Ryan Lomberg equalized in the second period on his return to training, the acquisition of the commercial deadline Claude Giroux evened things out in the third and captain Aleksander Barkov put them in the lead before TJ Oshie’s power-play goal sent the OT game.
After a record 29 comeback wins in the regular season and a dose of adversity in a streak tougher than many expected, the Panthers were not shaken by the sudden turn of events.
“We were just confident,” Huberdeau said. “We know we can score goals. Obviously they tied him up, but that’s hockey. That’s how it happened the way we won here last time, so it was the same thing. Obviously we have remained faithful, and it is the kind of team that we are and we have shown it ”.
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Verheaghe’s OT goal was the sixth leader of his team in the series and came after skipping the morning skate and was considered a decision during the game. Bruna said Verhaeghe “dug deep and found a way to do it.”
This is true for the whole team. Haunted by a reputation for losing in the playoffs, Florida’s core made up of Huberdeau, Barkov and top defender Aaron Ekblad, who hadn’t been up to par three previous times, have finally been able to immerse themselves in what it’s like to win a series.
“It means a lot,” Barkov said. “There has been a lot of talk about that and not winning any rounds, getting knocked out in the first round and stuff like that. Obviously you don’t think about it, but it’s there. It’s gone, so we’re happy and happy to be part of it. But there is still a long way to go to get to where we really want to be. “
The Capitals made it there in 2018, winning the organization’s first Stanley Cup title. They have not won a playoff streak since and were eliminated in the first round at home for the third time in that time frame.
“I think you see how we played against the best team of the regular season,” said Washington captain Alex Ovechkin. “We have it, but we wipe it out. It’s on us. “
The Panthers’ last series victory dates back to June 1, 1996, when they beat Pittsburgh in Game 7 to advance to the final. They were overwhelmed by Colorado, starting 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 time frame. Detroit won 27, Pittsburgh 24, Tampa Bay 22 and Colorado won 20. Florida kept waiting for just one, until Friday.
“These things, you have to go through them a couple of times to really get the feel of them,” said Brunette. “You must be heartbroken. You have to have things that go wrong and you can find out how hard it is and understand it and be resilient and when you see the reward as they saw tonight, it was worth it.
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