‘Comeback Cats’ strike again! Ekblad sparks season-opening win in return from injury

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Aaron Ekblad waited longer than any other Florida Panther for 2021-22 NHL season to begin. When his teammates were battling through the final days of the best regular season in franchise last year, he was going through the early days of rehab after fracturing his leg in March. When they were playing in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, he was watching from home and wondering how things might have been different if he was there for them.

His return is part of why the Panthers began the new season with perhaps the loftiest internal expectations in franchise history. He was playing at an All-Star level before his gruesome injury and Florida bowed out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs without him. With so much the same for the Panthers this season, Ekblad’s return is the biggest difference and he reminded South Florida why Thursday.

The Panthers were down two goals with seven minutes to go and then, in all of 1:38, Ekblad got them to overtime and eventually a 5-4, season-opening win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Sunrise.

“Comeback Cats,” Ekblad said, smiling after scoring twice in the final seven minutes of regulation and celebrating in front of 14,308 at FLA Live Arena. “Resilient team.”

Florida (1-0-0) blew a two-goal lead in the second period. It gave up four in a row in the second and third, including two in the span of 30 seconds to leave the Panthers in a 4-2 hole with 13:29 remaining. Florida even survived a pair of penalties in the final five minutes just to get to overtime and give Carter Verhaeghe a chance to finally win the game with 3:23 left in the extra period.

The Panthers scored an own goal and gave up nine power plays. They went 0 for 5 with the extra man and got outshot 47-39.

It was far from a perfect performance, but a dazzling 10-minute stretch to end the first game of the season gave Florida a perfect start.

“I only say ‘Comeback Cats’ because we’ve done it quite a few times in the last few years,” Ekblad said. “We live on that mantra.”

On Thursday, the comeback was all his.

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With less than seven minutes to go, Ekblad fired a shot from the left side and a scrum broke out around Pittsburgh’s net. Nine of the 10 skaters all wound up surrounding the goal. Eight or nine had fallen off their feet. The lone exception was Ekblad, who prowled around the front of the net, ready to pounce on a loose puck and he did. The puck slid out to him and he squared up against an empty net to cut the Penguins’ lead to 4-3 with 6:31 remaining.

Less than two minutes later, Ekblad struck again. He split a pair of defenders in the slot and right wing Owen Tippett found him cutting to the net. As soon as he felt the puck hit his stick, Ekblad swung toward the goal and tied the game 4-4 with 4:53 left.

The Panthers, who gave up four straight goals from the 8:45 mark of the second period to the 11:29 mark of the third, managed to get to overtime.

“That’s a great excitement for your start to the season with him and knowing that we missed him at a critical time when he was having a tremendous year,” coach Joel Quenneville said, “it was a good way to begin the season.”

In overtime, Florida and Pittsburgh (1-0-1) traded chances before Sergei Bobrovsky made one final save, and Verhaeghe put home a game-winning goal off a pass by star center Aleksander Barkov.

Bobrovsky finished with 43 saves on 47 shots and even though he allowed four goals, two came on power plays and another was an own goal. His spectacular plays far outnumbered his gaffes and he made one of his best right before Verhaeghe’s game-winner, sprawling to deny Penguins forward Evan Rodrigues on a breakaway.

Barkov led the break in the other direction and paused once he crossed the blue line, searching for a cutter. Pittsburgh lost track of Verhaeghe as he came down the other side and Barkov picked him out with a cross-ice pass. Verhaeghe, who also scored the first goal of the season in the first period, ignited the celebration.

Florida Panthers left wing Carter Verhaeghe (23) is congratulated by teammates after scoring the winning goal against Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) during the overtime of the Florida Panthers NHL home opener game at the FLA Live Arena on Thursday, October 14, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.
Florida Panthers left wing Carter Verhaeghe (23) is congratulated by teammates after scoring the winning goal against Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) during the overtime of the Florida Panthers NHL home opener game at the FLA Live Arena on Thursday, October 14, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.

Internal expectations for this season, Quenneville acknowledged, are higher than they’ve been since he arrived in 2018. General manager Bill Zito said Tuesday he can tell the fan base is buying in. Every player knows this season has a chance to be special and Thursday was a special way to start it.

“Hopefully not every game is as dramatic as that,” Verhaeghe said with a laugh, “or else we might go crazy.”

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