Keith Ballard, left, of Florida Panthers tackles Patrick Kane of Chicago Blackhawks, right, at the NHL Premier ice hockey game Chicago Blackhawks vs. Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Lehtikuva/Jussi Nukari)
HELSINKI, Finland - Ville Koistinen provided a fitting end to the first regular-season NHL game ever played in Finland.
The Finish defender scored the winning goal in the shootout, lifting the Florida Panthers to a 4-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday in their season opener.
Koistinen also scored in regulation, but it was his backhander in the shootout that brought 12,056 fans in Hartwall Arena to their feet - where they stayed after Tomas Vokoun stopped Patrick Sharp on the final shot of the shootout.
"I was not really sure that the puck was in," Koistinen said. "I looked at the referee, and he acknowledged it. This is quite unbelievable, to do this in a game before a home crowd in my home country."
Steven Reinprecht also connected in the shootout for Florida.
The 27-year-old Koistinen is basically a defenceman who played for Nashville last season. He was a forward in this game, a surprise lineup move by Florida coach Peter DeBoer.
Last year, the Panthers' race for a playoff spot was thwarted by ineptness in overtime and shootouts. It also lost many games after the second period.
"The shootouts are a big part of the NHL today," Vokoun said. "Last year we did badly in them, but hopefully our results are better this year."
The Czech goalie finished with 55 saves, while the Blackhawks' Christobal Huet had 24.
Chicago's Patrick Kane scored the first NHL goal on Finnish soil and assisted on another, while Jonathan Toews scored in the shootout as the first man out.
Sharp had scored at 11:36 of the third period for a 3-2 Chicago edge, but David Booth fired in a high shot with 2:21 remaining to make it 3-3.
The Panthers, who before the game promoted Randy Sexton to general manager, came back three times from one-goal deficits to force overtime. Dustin Byfuglien and Koistinen had scored the first goals in the period.
Fresh from the penalty box, Kane scored the first goal after receiving a pinpoint long pass from Niklas Hjalmarsson. He accelerated before feinting Vokoun and finishing with a backhander 5:19 into the second period.
Michael Frolik tied it on a perfect pass across the crease by Reinprecht.
Chicago regained the lead early in the third period thanks to Byfuglien during a goalmouth scramble, and a shot by Koistinen drew Florida even again.
"We played a very good first period. Maybe we moved the puck a little bit too much, but our goalkeeper gave us the chance to win," veteran defenceman Bryan McCabe said.
Chicago defenceman Brian Campbell said the Blackhawks' preparation for their opener in Helsinki was not ideal, after playing on a larger rink during exhibition games.
"We played in an Olympic-size rink in Switzerland, and this now felt narrow even if we have played in smaller rinks our whole lives," Campbell said. "Maybe travelling took something from us. Florida possibly had an advantage as they had been in Finland longer."