Cousins scores in OT to send Panthers to Eastern Conference Finals

Cousins scores in OT to send Panthers to Eastern Conference Finals

Cousins scores in OT to send Panthers to Eastern Conference Finals

Cousins scores in OT to send Panthers to Eastern Conference Finals
Cousins scores in OT to send Panthers to Eastern Conference Finals

Scoring the biggest goal of his career, Cousins beat Joseph Woll with a shot from the left circle at 15:32 of overtime to send the Florida Panthers to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1996 with a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Friday.

“A big goal for our team,” said Cousins, who had never scored a playoff goal in overtime. “I’m really excited to make a play there at the end. At the same time, we move on here to Round 3.”

The X-factor for the Panthers throughout the entire five-game series against Toronto, Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 50 of 52 shots to become just the second goaltender in franchise history to post a 50-save performance in the playoffs, joining John Vanbiesbrouck (55 saves in 1996).

“It’s definitely a big moment, but you don’t really think big right now,” said Bobrovsky, who held Toronto’s high-powered offense to just two goals in all five games of the series. “You just stay in the moment and really focused on the moment. You don’t think about what’s happened.”

By eliminating the Maple Leafs, the Panthers will now face the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 3.

“We didn’t luck into the playoffs,” said Panthers head coach Paul Maurice, who is set for a reunion in the next round after having previously coached Carolina for 11 seasons. “We didn’t underperform all year and then kind of get hot. We started from scratch almost and built it.”

On an early power play after Eetu Luostarinen was the victim of a high stick, the Panthers opened the scoring when Aaron Ekblad blasted a one-timer from the left circle that caught a piece of Woll before ending up in the cage to make it 1-0 at 3:31 of the first period.

Doubling the lead for the Panthers later in the period, Carter Verhaeghe, who has been simply a scoring-machine in the playoffs ever since he joined the Panthers, teed up a pass from Anthony Duclair and bested Woll with a blistering one-timer to make it 2-0 at 16:18.

Cutting into the deficit for the Maple Leafs in the second period, Morgan Reilly fired a shot on net that slipped through traffic before just sneaking past Bobrovsky to make it 2-1 at 7:50.

Enter drama.

With the second intermission approaching, the Maple Leafs thought they tied things up when Reilly skated into the crease and tried to tuck a shot in between the far post and the right pad of Bobrovsky, who made a spectacular effort to slide across the crease on the play.

Immediately, Reilly threw his hands up in the air as if he’d scored and play was stopped. But with no officials having seen the puck cross the goal line, the goal was waved off and the play went under a very lengthy review that eventually ended with the “no goal” call being upheld.

Per the NHL’s official statement, “the referee deemed the play dead prior to the puck crossing the goal line.” Unfortunately, one of the main replay angles used was one that showed where the puck was after the play had been blown dead, which added some confusion to the sequence.

After the judgment was handed out by officials, trash rained down from the stands.

Luckily, rats love trash.

With 4:27 left in regulation, William Nylander carried the puck into the offensive zone and roofed a sharp-angle shot over Bobrovsky’s left shoulder to make it 2-2 and get the game into overtime.

In the extra frame, Bobrovsky made nine saves — including a game-saving stop on a great look for Auston Matthews on the doorstep — to keep the Panthers in a prime position to pounce.

Clearing the way for the game-winner, Radko Gudas flew down the slot and created plenty of space for Cousins, who then curled and scored to lock down the 3-2 win send the Panthers into Round 3.

“So much credit to him,” Cousins said of Gudas. “He broke the play up in our own end and he got it up to me. I was just fortunate to make a curl there and lucky enough it went in. All the credit to him. I think he even screened the goalie on the play, too.”

After eliminating the 65-win Bruins in Round 1 and then dispatching the storied Maple Leafs in Round 2, the Panthers don’t plan to slow down as they now set their sights on the Hurricanes.

“Nobody in the world thought we were going to be in this position right now,” Tkachuk said of the Panthers, who entered the playoffs as the 16th seed in the NHL. “We don’t care what anybody’s opinion is on us. We know that it’s going to be very similar going into [Round 3].”

“It’s an unreal feeling right now. To go to the Eastern Conference Finals is a big, big deal for us. That’s all I can think right now. It was a great effort by everyone.” – Aleksander Barkov

“It was special to play in the capital of hockey. It feels even more special to have the win.” – Sergei Bobrovsky

“You get to watch a bunch of guys that you care about a lot and enjoy the hell out of it. Just walking into the room after, there’s pure joy in there.” – Paul Maurice

“[That goal] is top of the list, for sure. It’s one of those moments where you’ll grow up and you’ll tell your kids about it. My daughter is only 11 months, so that’s something I’ll get to tell her about when she grows up. A big goal. Big moment for our team. Really special.” – Nick Cousins

– The Panthers are 5-0 in this year’s playoffs when leading after the first period.

– Aaron Ekblad and Matthew Tkachuk led the Panthers with five points each in Round 2.

– Nick Cousins led the Panthers with seven hits in Game 5.

– Radko Gudas led the Panthers with four blocked shots in Game 5.

– Sergei Bobrovsky’s 50 saves are the most in a series-clinching game in franchise history.

– Florida controlled 61.29% of shot attempts when Brandon Montour was on the ice at 5-on-5.

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