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It rained plastic and plush rats inside FLA Live arena Thursday, a quirky nod to the Florida Panthers’ past and a joyful celebration of their present position of being very much in the Stanley Cup Final after their 3-2 overtime victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

The first Panthers team that went to the Final, in 1996, rallied around a symbolic rat after Scott Mellanby found a real rodent in the team’s locker room at decrepit Miami Arena and scored two goals that night, which teammate John Vanbiesbrouck called a “rat trick,” and it stuck. The Panthers were swept by the Colorado Avalanche in that Final, and after losing the first two games of this Final to Vegas, their return trip appeared to be following the same futile path.

But Matthew Tkachuk, who sat out most of the first period and part of the second period Thursday after being rocked by a hit from Keegan Kolesar, wrested control of the game away from the Golden Knights when he tied the score from close range with 2 minutes 13 seconds left in the third period and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on the bench in favor of an extra skater.

Carter Verhaeghe triggered a rainfall of rats when he wristed a shot past Vegas goaltender Adin Hill at 4:27 into sudden-death play, cutting Vegas’ lead in the series to 2-1.

“They were leading most of the game but at the end of the day nobody cares how we got here,” Tkachuk said.

Game 4 will be played Saturday at FLA Live Arena, presumably with more toy rats in the clutches of fans who appreciate the spunk of a team that barely made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the first round.

“It’s amazing. I’m not going to lie,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “I’ve been here for a long time and this is the best time in my life to play in front of that crowd and battling for something you’ve been dreaming of since literally I was born. It’s huge.”

Florida took the lead in the first period in their first Stanley Cup Final game at FLA Live Arena, which became its home in 1998 after the team left Miami Arena. But Vegas pulled even during a four-on-three power play, which has been a formidable weapon for them during the Final.

Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour, who began his career with the Ducks and was traded to Buffalo in 2019, recorded his first point of the Final with a long-range shot through traffic that sailed past Hill at 4:08 of the first period.

The goal continued a good week for Montour, who became a father for the first time Sunday when his wife, Ryian, gave birth to a son, Kai. Tkachuk earned the primary assist with a fine pass that Montour turned into his seventh goal of the playoffs.

Tkachuk left for the locker room after taking a hit from Kolesar not long afterward, and he didn’t emerge for the rest of the period. The Golden Knights pulled even at 16:03, when Mark Stone tipped home a long shot by Jonathan Marchessault.

In a game that was closely called by referees Dan O’Rourke and Kelly Sutherland, the Golden Knights gained a power play at 14:13 of the second period when Barkov was penalized for interference, and Vegas cashed in to take a 2-1 lead.

Marchessault ripped home a one-timer from the left circle, on a slick setup by Jack Eichel, at 14:59 and grabbed a share of the postseason goal-scoring lead, with his 13th.

Tkachuk tied it late in the third period while in the thick of the action around the net.

“That’s where I spend most of my time,” he said of his goal, produced when he pounced on the rebound of a blast by Verhaeghe. The Golden Knights gained a late power play that carried over into overtime, but they couldn’t capitalize on it.

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said he hoped his team was “upset with certain things that transpired,” such as being outnumbered around the net, but his players weren’t distraught.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” Stone said. “They’re a resilient team. We want to be able to close games, but we’ll regroup and be ready for the next one.”

And they’ll have to be ready for the rats and the resilience the Panthers bring.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Read the full article here

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