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In the Stanley Cup Final for a 3rd time in 5 years, Florida's Carter Verhaeghe keeps scoring goals

SUNRISE, Fla. — (AP) — Sure, Corey Perry is in the Stanley Cup Final for a fourth time in five years, but he lost his three previous trips.

Florida's Carter Verhaeghe is there for a third time in that span and has a ring to show for it, from 2020 as a rookie with Tampa Bay. It's no coincidence he keeps scoring big goals for the Panthers, now three wins from a championship, and he appreciates each one because of his long road to even reach the NHL.

“I always had the drive to kind of get better, and I knew I had the talent and I think it just took a little longer for me,” Verhaeghe said. “It took a long time to get here. I think no path is straight, and I think for me it definitely hasn’t been straight. I’ve definitely been to a lot of different places, and everywhere I went I tried to take from that experience and kind of learn from my experience of where I’ve been and try to get better.”

Verhaeghe seems to be at his best when it matters most. He scored the first and eventual winning goal in Game 1 against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, his team-leading 10th of the playoffs.

“He is definitely an elite player, he has elite speed and goal-scoring ability and he works on it every single day,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He has a goal-scoring mindset where he wants to shoot the puck, and he knows how to shoot it. He’s been working on it every single day. That’s why he’s had success.”

Coach Paul Maurice, whose 1,849 regular-season games are the second only to Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, admires the difficult path it took Verhaeghe to get here. A 2013 third-round pick of his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, he spent four seasons bouncing around the minors between the American Hockey League and the ECHL.

Skating was an issue, so he worked on that and took it from a weakness to a strength. Verhaeghe improved it to the point that he made his NHL debut with the Lightning in 2019.

Since then, he has 169 points in 330 regular-season games and 52 in 63 in the playoffs.

“He is an unusual performer, that man,” Maurice said. “He is so good in the most intense and almost chaotic play. He can raise that level.”

It did not come naturally. Verhaeghe was drafted as a playmaking center and is now a scoring winger.

“I had to figure out my game a little bit,” he said. “I had to evolve.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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