SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Ekblad had the simplest assessment of how opening night went for the Florida Panthers.
“Comeback ‘Cats,” he said.
That they were, and fittingly, Ekblad’s comeback was the biggest part of it all.
Florida’s top defenseman — who missed the second half of last season with a broken left leg — scored twice late in the third period to single-handedly erase a two-goal Florida deficit, Carter Verhaeghe’s second goal of the game came 1:37 into overtime and the Panthers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 on Thursday night.
“Crazy beginning to the season,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “But certainly, the outcome was what we’re looking for.”
Verhaeghe finished it off moments after Sergei Bobrovsky stoned Evan Rodrigues on a breakaway. Bobrovsky made 43 saves for Florida, which also got a goal from Anthony Duclair and two assists from Aleksander Barkov.
Jeff Carter got the 400th goal of his career for Pittsburgh. Jake Guentzel scored what was a go-ahead goal from behind the net for Pittsburgh, which also got goals from Danton Heinen and Rodrigues along with 34 saves from Casey DeSmith.
“All in all, I think it’s a great start for us,” said Carter, after Pittsburgh got three of a possible four points out of its season-opening trip to Tampa Bay and Florida.
Carter’s goal made him the seventh active player with 400 in the NHL, plus was one of two where the Penguins caught a break off a Florida defenseman. He threw the puck toward the net from the right-wing boards, and it deflected off Ekblad’s stick past Bobrovsky.
That made it 2-2 late in the second, and Guentzel’s goal came after Bobrovsky made an initial stop but was caught to the left of his crease. Guentzel tapped the puck out front, and it hit Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar before finding the net. That made it 3-2, and Rodrigues scored 30 seconds later to give the Penguins a two-goal lead midway through the third.
And then Ekblad happened.
Off a crazy scramble, with almost every skater on the ice battling around the crease, the puck squirted into the slot and Ekblad teed off, firing it over the mass of bodies to get Florida within 4-3.
“I was the only one that wasn’t in the pile,” Ekblad said. “Just got lucky there.”
The Penguins weren’t pleased that the officials let the play continue with all those bodies around the net.
“I don’t know how they kept sight of the puck,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “My question to them was, if you lose sight of the puck, you’re supposed to blow the whistle. They said they saw the puck. I don’t know how they saw the puck. There were 10 people in the crease.”
Ekblad added a backhander less than two minutes later, tying it with 4:53 left in regulation of what became the third two-goal game of his career.
“I only see him getting better,” Quenneville said.
Verhaeghe opened the scoring for Florida midway through the first, and Duclair got the puck to squirt past DeSmith for a 2-0 Panthers lead at 3:57 of the second period.
The rest of the period was all Pittsburgh, because Florida couldn’t stay out of the penalty box.
The Panthers took five penalties in a 10-minute span, played with either one or two players off the ice for more than six consecutive minutes in one stretch, and eventually the Penguins took advantage. Heinen — who also had Pittsburgh’s first goal in the opener at Tampa Bay — scored to cut the two-goal lead in half, and Carter’s milestone goal came with 1:02 left in the second.
4 OF 7
Of the seven active players with 400 goals, four were technically part of this game. Sidney Crosby (486) and Evgeni Malkin (424) are injured for Pittsburgh, and Joe Thornton (425) made his Panthers debut. The others on the list are Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane.
NOTES: The Goodyear blimp was hovering over FLA Live Arena as fans arrived. … Guentzel, who missed the opener because of COVID-19 protocols, played in his 300th career game. … The Panthers paid tribute to the team’s alternate governor, U.S. Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, who died earlier this month. Odierno led the Army division that captured Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. … Pittsburgh became the first team to score two power-play goals in the same period of a regular-season game against Florida since Los Angeles got two in the third period of a 4-3 Panthers win on Jan. 16, 2020. Tampa Bay did it twice against Florida in last season’s playoffs.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports