Panthers blow two-goal lead to Rangers, as ill-timed losing streak hits three games

Carter Verhaeghe tilted his head back in disbelief as the New York Rangers finally completed their comeback and took a lead on the Florida Panthers in the third period. It was a stunning around, both because of how dominant the Panthers once looked and because of how the Rangers’ go-ahead goal happened. Verhaeghe, Florida’s leading goal scorer, reached out his stick to try to deflect a cross and instead redirected right past Sergei Bobrovsky to give New York its first lead of the game in the third period.

It has been this kind of season for the Panthers — one full of self-inflected wounds and unfortunate breaks — and their 4-3 loss to the Rangers on Saturday in Sunrise was perhaps their most vexing yet.

It also could be the one to finally crush their hopes at sneaking into the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The loss was Florida’s third in a row and now the Panthers, who are in the middle of a postseason race, haven’t picked up a point since Monday. Three straight losses, all in regulation, have cost Florida (36-30-7) control of its own destiny and leaves it at least a point behind the Penguins for the second wild card with only nine games left in the regular season. Now, the Panthers are headed on the road for four straight games and need to win their next game just to avoid their longest losing streak of the season.

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For a period, they played well enough to emphatically break out of their skid. Florida jumped out to a 2-0 lead at the first intermission, outshooting the Rangers, 13-3, in the opening period with a retooled lineup to make up for the injury absence of center Sam Bennett.

All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk, who usually plays next to Bennett, moved up to the top line to play with All-Star center Aleksander Barkov and Barkov put the Panthers up 1-0 in the first 10 minutes when he scored on a rebound. About five and a half minutes later, left wing Ryan Lomberg scored to double the lead and Florida went into the first intermission in complete control.

From there, everything flipped. New York (43-20-10) outshot the Panthers, 21-7, in the second period to tie the game at 2-2 and then got the decisive break in the opening minutes of the third with Verhaeghe’s own goal — officially credited to nine-time All-Star right wing Patrick Kane, one of the Rangers’ many high-profile midseason additions.

Florida had 18:38 to regroup and at least force overtime, and couldn’t. With 13:42 remaining, Rangers forward Filip Chytil scored on a breakaway, which meant Barkov’s second goal 42 seconds later was only enough to give Florida an jolt of life down 4-3, rather than to tie the game.

The jolt never turned into anything more. The Panthers managed only two shots across the next 10 minutes and four more in the rest of the game before the 18,365 at FLA Live Arena finally saw time run out on a winless two-game homestand at the worst time of the year.