If anyone was going to be the hero for the Florida Panthers in a seemingly endless game, it was Matthew Tkachuk.
Tkachuk, the Panthers’ NHL Hart Trophy finalist, finally ended a marathon game which went from Thursday night into Friday morning as his goal with 12.7 seconds left in the fourth overtime beat the host Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Only after 5 hours and 44 minutes of hockey, this one was finally over.
“I did not want to go to a fifth overtime,’’ Tkachuk quipped.
As it stands, it was not only the longest game either franchise had ever played — both passed that record in the third overtime — but the sixth-longest game in NHL history.
“I’m definitely tired, but I think you are less tired when you win,” Tkachuk said.
“That is a great team over there and I hope you guys enjoyed that one because what I saw was two really good teams fighting it out for every inch. It’s the little battles which people maybe don’t realize that are very important but both teams are doing it all game long.”
Tkachuk brought the game to a merciful end at 1:54 a.m. local time when he pulled into the slot and fired a wrist shot past Frederik Andersen with Brent Burns closing in on him.
Burns had turned the puck over in the corner with Sam Bennett pressuring him and eventually getting it to his former Calgary teammate.
“That was probably my favorite goal of my life,” Tkachuk said.
Tkachuk has already scored a few goals which would crack the Top 5 in the history of the Panthers so far this season, but Friday morning’s quadruple-overtime winner is one which will not be forgotten any time soon.
The heroics for Tkachuk in this postseason started in Florida’s historic first-round comeback against the Boston Bruins.
Those were the last goals Tkachuk scored as he went on a six-game goal drought. Although he got three assists in Game 1 against the Maple Leafs, he did not score a goal against them.
Tkachuk ended his drought in a huge way — for more reasons than one.
The Hurricanes entered the Eastern Conference finals as the best home team remaining in the playoffs with a 5-1 record.
Silencing that raucous Raleigh crowd was essential if the Panthers wanted to steal a game in this series.
Despite the best efforts of the tired PNC Arena faithful, Florida simply outlasted them.
Neither team was giving the other an inch for hours on end in one of the most evenly-matched games of hockey ever played.
Now, it is the eighth-seeded Panthers who have momentum in the conference finals as they have won their past two Game 1s after not winning the opening game of a playoff series since 1997 before beating the Leafs in Toronto.
And, their MVP candidate may just have his mojo back with his team now three wins away from its first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1996.
“It is very cool to be on the winning side of that,’’ Tkachuk said. “But you have to tip your cap to the way both teams played. Fourth overtime, guys are diving to get shots out, blocking shots. I don’t even know how many shots were blocked.
“Both teams are very dialed in, playing hard but smart. Both teams are very team-first and you can easily see that. Should be a good rest to the series.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1)
- When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
- Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: Florida 3, @Carolina 2; Game 2:Saturday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 3: Monday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 4: Wednesday, May 24 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Friday, May 26 at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 6*:Sunday, May 28 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Tuesday, May 30 at Carolina, 8 (TNT). *If Necessary
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): @Florida 3, Carolina 0 (Nov.9);@Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, @Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.