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Matthew Tkachuk: A Scoring ‘Animal’ for the Florida Panthers

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Matthew Tkachuk celebrates after scoring against his hometown St. Louis Blues on Jan. 9. It was one of the 12 goals he has scored since Dec. 23. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

FORT LAUDERDALE — Matthew Tkachuk has been a scoring machine since the Florida Panthers lost for the fourth straight game on Dec. 21 against the St. Louis Blues.

Two days later, with the Vegas Golden Knights in town, Tkachuk had his first multi-point game in a month in a rousing win against the team which ended Florida’s season in the Stanley Cup Final.

Since that game against Vegas, Tkachuk’s 34 points off 12 goals ranks as the most scored in the league.

“You cannot say enough about him and the success that we have had since he has been here,” Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s no surprise; he brings it every night. If his hands aren’t there, he gets into it with his body. If his body and his hands aren’t there, he gets into it with his fists.

“He is an animal, a role model and a leader. We all respect him greatly. I have a lot of  those guys. They’re the best players in the world and they’re doing it every night. How lucky are we?’’

Coming into that game on Dec. 23, Tkachuk had five goals — ranked 231st in the NHL — and was 106th in scoring with 22 points.

The Tkachuk Machine is humming along quite nicely now.

Sam Reinhart, of course, has 18 goals during that time.

Reinhart’s numbers are huge — but they are not overshadowing what Tkachuk has been doing.

Especially since the two have been helping each other out.

Oh, and the Panthers have been on quite a run during all of this.

“The last couple of weeks, we kind of have turned this thing around,” said Tkachuk, who has 12 goals and 17 assists since Jan. 2 with many of those helpers going to Reinhart. “We went into break and it was much-needed, a great reset. We did not play our best and lost our first game back, but it was good to be back and feel really fresh and rejuvenated. We’re ready to play a lot of games.”

Tkachuk was not in Las Vegas when the Panthers season ended in Game 5 of the Final.

In Game 3, he fractured his sternum in a mid-ice collision with Keegan Kolesar.

Although he forced overtime with a goal in that game and gamed his way through Game 4, Tkachuk was too hurt to travel with the Panthers to Nevada, much less continue playing.

In September, he came to camp saying he was 100 percent healed and ready to go — but the numbers say perhaps he was not.

“His game, when he was not scoring, was markedly better than it was a year ago,’’ Paul Maurice said. “Defensively, his reads and doing the right thing could cost you a few points. But there is no change in his game. He is not hanging out, he is not trying a high level of risk that pays off every once in a while but the cost (defensively) is high. It is smart hockey.

“But I don’t think his timing was right (early) and I don’t think it was for Sam Bennett, either when they came back. Those subtle little differences that we may not feel, that’s what makes these guys elite. When they are a little off, they can’t finish.”

Tkachuk did not use his injury as an excuse for his low numbers, as his play was strong everywhere else.

“I approach every game the same whether the results are there are not,” Maurice said. “But I know it helps the team more when the results are there for me. We found a way at the beginning of the season and we are finding a way now. Whatever it takes. I just hope for myself, numbers aside, that my game continues to keep going up in the right direction for the playoffs.”

The Panthers have 29 games left in this regular season and are in a much better spot than they were a year ago.

Much of that has to do with Tkachuk — and he has certainly enjoyed his time in South Florida thus far.

It has been a heck of a year for Tkachuk and for the Panthers.

The good times for Florida started around when the NHL All-Star Game was in Sunrise, with Tkachuk winning MVP honors on Feb. 4.

Florida then went on a run good enough to make it into the playoffs.

From there, the Panthers upset Boston, Toronto, and Carolina to make it to the Final, where things did not work out as they had hoped.

“This whole year, all of last season to where we are right now has been great,’’ Tkachuk said. “I really felt that last year, even though the All-Star break was hectic, it was a lot of festivities but I really got recharged and got my game going for the stretch run and into the playoffs.”

But, there is hope renewed when it comes to the Panthers.

They have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and should be considered a serious threat to make a run for the Cup again this year.

That’s all Tkachuk cares about.

Keep your stats.

He just wants a chance at the big prize.

“I felt really good during the stretch run and was just trying to build my game for the playoffs,’’ Tkachuk said. “I really want to do that again this year. I feel like I going up with my game but I feel I can be better. These last few months going into the playoffs, I want to be at my best.’’

ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS @ PITTSBURGH PENGUINS 

  • When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: PPG Arena, Pittsburgh
  • TV/Streaming: TNT/HBO Max
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Season Series (Panthers Lead 2-0) — At Florida: Panthers 3, Penguins 1 (Dec. 8). At Pittsburgh: Panthers 3, Penguins 2 (SO) Jan. 26; Wednesday.
  • Last Season: Penguins won 2-1
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Penguins lead 56-37-8, 4 ties
  • All-time Playoff Series: Florida d. Pittsburgh 4-3, 1996 Eastern Conference finals
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday at Buffalo, 7 p.m.

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