SUNRISE — Carter Verhaeghe knows how to seize an opportunity when he sees one.
When the Panthers came knocking in free agency after Verhaeghe helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2020, he saw an open door to expand his fourth-line role into a larger one.
Now he’s a key contributor to a history-making Florida season.
After getting a career-high 55 points in the 2021-22 regular season for the Presidents’ Trophy winners, Verhaeghe led the Panthers to their first playoff series win since 1996 with a franchise-series-record 12 points in a six-game first-round win over the Capitals.
Verhaeghe, 26, sets the pace for the Panthers, said interim coach Andrew Brunette, which is why he entered the second-round series against the Lightning playing on the top line with Aleksander Barkov and Claude Giroux.
“He’s a big part of our identity and who we are,” Brunette said.
Now, trailing in the series two games to none, Florida might need Verhaeghe — who scored three winning goals against Washington, including two in overtime — more than ever.
A game-time decision for Game 2 against the Lightning with an unspecified injury, he was quiet in the first two games of this series, with no points and just three shots on goal, including none in Game 2, while averaging 18:13 of ice time.
Verhaeghe said he knew he wasn’t going to be handed a larger role when he joined the Panthers. It was something he was going to have to earn every day.
“You kind of have to earn your opportunity everywhere you go,” he said. “Like with Tampa, it’s a little different, but I got here and just kind of did everything I can to try and have a role on the team and kind of embraced it.”
Verhaeghe’s former Lightning teammates aren’t surprised by his success in Sunrise.
“When you get to this level, a lot of it has to do with opportunity,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “And you look at some guys, you know, like a (Golden Knights and former Lightning forward) Jonathan Marchessault, like a Carter Verhaeghe, I mean, those guys have turned into really, really good players in this league, and the timing that they came into our roster, maybe it didn’t fit for them.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t going to be the players that they are now, but you have to give them credit, too. They’ve stuck with it, and Carter’s become a great, great player.”
Said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, “Great success story. You cheer for guys like Carter. … Now he’s being rewarded for (his work), and I’m really happy for him.”
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Verhaeghe’s drive to improve his game has helped him progress from one season to the next. In addition to his poise with the puck and speed on the ice, his confidence has increased since his time with the Lightning.
His average ice time nearly doubled (9:22 to 17:44) and his points almost tripled (13 to 36) from his rookie season in Tampa Bay in 2019-20 to his first season with Florida.
“I was more reliable and a big part of the team,” Verhaeghe said. “It’s different, but it grew my confidence, and it helped me kind of develop into a different player.”
Verhaeghe said he and his teammates won’t be satisfied with simply advancing out of the opening round of the playoffs.
“It’s kind of a bit of a whirlwind,” Verhaeghe said of his postseason. “When you grow up, you think about scoring those big goals in the playoffs and everything like that, and it’s kind of a little bit surreal, but we still have a job to do, and it’s just one round.
“We have bigger goals in mind.”
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