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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Matthew Tkachuk: Breakout Star of the Florida Panthers Playoffs

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Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers takes a break after being dunked during All-Star festivities on Fort Lauderdale Beach on Feb. 2. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Matthew Tkachuk was MVP of the All-Star Game, scored over 100 points for a second consecutive season, but he is truly breaking out during this postseason with the Florida Panthers.

Anywhere you turn, if they are talking about hockey, they are probably talking about Tkachuk.

Tkachuk had his fingerprints all over the Panthers’ 7-game upset of the Boston Bruins in the opening round and with the Panthers in the hockey hotbed of Toronto, the spotlight has turned directly on him.

Sure, Brandon Montour has had a monster postseason for the Panthers with six goals in eight games and Sergei Bobrovsky has been terrific.

But the only thing anyone wants to talk about when it comes to the Panthers is Tkachuk.

“His game has always been how he plays, with a lot of intensity and plays on the edge a lot,” said Toronto star Auston Matthews, who played with Tkachuk during their junior days.

“He is always in front of the net, is a heavy body down low. He is obviously a very effective player and you have to respect that. But don’t respect it too much. We have to make it harder for him out there.’’

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Tkachuk, who came to the Panthers in one of the biggest blockbuster NHL deals in recent memory this past summer, has most certainly lived up to the hype.

Called a ‘unicorn’ for his ability not only to play rough around the edges but also produce at a high offensive level, Tkachuk has simply been everything the Panthers hoped he would be.

Perhaps more.

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Florida coach Paul Maurice was hired about three weeks before the Panthers traded Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar as well as a first-round draft pick and a prospect to Calgary for Tkachuk.

It was, for sure, a high price to pay — but it’s a trade the Panthers would make again and again.

“When you can add a player like Matthew to your organization, the price is steep,” GM Bill Zito said at the time.

As the coach of the Winnipeg Jets, Maurice saw a lot of Matthew Tkachuk — and did not like facing him.

He sort of digs the guy now.

“His production is awesome, but his personality is what shocked the hell out of me,’’ Maurice said Tuesday night. “We’re talking Winnipeg and Calgary, right? I didn’t say many nice things about this young man — or to him. I don’t talk to players on the bench, but if he could hear what I was thinking, it wasn’t very kind.

“Then, he’s down here in the first week and he takes all the trainers out. And it’s real the way he treats the bus driver, flight attendants; he is the exact opposite of what you see on the ice. He cares about his teammates.”

Tkachuk is not only getting into the heads of his opponents, but he is burning up the scoresheet in these playoffs.

The same guy who got into a fight with Boston goalie Linus Ullmark at the end of Game 4 is the same one who beat Ullmark in overtime of Game 5 to extend Florida’s season.

In three elimination games against the Bruins, Tkachuk had three goals and six points.

“Super-competitive guy,” Toronto defenseman Mark Giordano, a teammate of Tkachuk’s in Calgary, said per the Toronto Star. “We’ve got to be hard against him.”

After being credited with nine hits and picking up three assists in Florida’s 4-2 win over Toronto on Tuesday night in the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Tkachuk’s future odds as for the Conn Smythe Trophy — which goes to the playoff MVP — jumped considerably.

According to FanDuel, Tkachuk went from 23-1 to 12-1 to win — which is the third-best odds only trailing behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Of course, we’re a long way away from even thinking about such things. They have only played one game of the conference semifinals, for goodness sake.

But it is worth mentioning how much attention Tkachuk is getting not only from fans and coaches — but the bookmakers as well.

Coming into Wednesday, his 14 points and 9 assists led all NHL players in the postseason as Tkachuk’s 1.75 points per game was second only to Draisaitl (1.83).

Tkachuk seems to be the player to watch in these playoffs.

And when the Panthers play, it is Must See TV.

On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs said they are going to be keeping not only a closer eye on Tkachuk but his whole line as the trio of Tkachuk, Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins rode roughshod over Toronto in Game 1.

If the Leafs think they can slow them down, they are going to throw everything they have at them come tonight.

“We have to keep them on their half of the ice,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They spend time in the offensive zone, winning pucks back and making it hard to get out of your end and then attacking the net.

“They get momentum, they get life, get energy and it really fuels the rest of their team’s game. … Those guys were really good and we allowed them to be even better than we expected.”

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 2 (Panthers Lead 1-0)

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