SUNRISE — Matthew Tkachuk met with the South Florida media on Tuesday for the first time since his critical comments following the Florida Panthers 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders last week.
After the loss, Tkachuk said the Panthers “deserved what we got” against the Islanders, adding “there have been games this year we definitely deserved to win but tonight we did not.”
Tkachuk went on to say there where “lots of mistakes. Probably cheating it is the best way to put it. You can’t do that against any team in this league. … We have to find ways to win. We’re so behind where we have to be right now. Every individual needs to find a way to make a bigger difference than what we have this year.”
On Tuesday afternoon, in Florida’s first practice after their Christmas break, Tkachuk said despite his team’s recent struggles — the Panthers have lost three straight and six of their past eight — the playoffs are still in sight.
The Panthers do have quite a lot of meat left in their schedule although they have already squandered a big chunk of it.
Still, Tkachuk reminded, it is not too late to make amends and get back into this thing.
”It is still in our control, the mood is great because we know we have it,” Tkachuk said Tuesday. “We’re not negative, not down on each other. There is a ton of belief in this group. We have to come out here in a few days and show it. … The good thing is we have 40 or 50 big games coming up. The playoffs start now for us. Big games.”
The Panthers, coach Paul Maurice said after that loss, had “absolutely no legs from start to finish. If you can’t skate, you can’t win.”
He did not mind Tkachuk’s comments, he said on Tuesday, as long as Tkachuk included himself in them.
No one, save perhaps for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who kept the Panthers in that game, was very good on Long Island even though Tkachuk did give Florida a 1-0 lead with his 15th goal of the season.
Maurice said while he did not think his team was mentally checked out Friday night, they just did not have what it took physically and mentally in that game.
“I think it is fine as long as you are not separating yourself from the rest of the group,” Maurice said on Tuesday. “He was equally as good as everyone else that night — coaches included. We weren’t very good that night. We have had two of those (types of games) this month. You could feel it in the morning skate, we were worried about it after the first shift. We did not leave three or four standout performances and waste those with poor play from the rest of the team. We weren’t very good.”
On Thursday, Tkachuk did include himself.
”In our last game,’’ he said, “nobody brought it. … Everybody was frustrated with it.”
Florida is obviously in a tough spot coming out of the break, entering Wednesday nine points back of the New York Rangers for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers had played more games than any other team in the Atlantic Division yet, unless a team such as Tampa Bay has a complete meltdown in these final months, will be locked out of one of three automatic postseason divisional spots.
Florida is grouped in with teams such as the Islanders, Rangers, Capitals, Sabres and Red Wings for the two final wild card spots.
And they are at the bottom of that grouping with 47 games remaining.
Maurice said his team does not need that reminder.
They know what is ahead of them.
”I don’t think they need those tires pumped. I don’t,’’ he said. “All of us are hyperaware of the changes every night. They know where they are at. This is not their first year in the league. They understand, they know where we’re at and what we have coming up in January. The most important thing is to get players back in the lineup to assess where you are at.”
With the Panthers not playing until Thursday and many of the teams in front of them getting some in, Florida may find themselves even further back by the time the Canadiens get here.
Yet, with the Panthers getting healthy, Tkachuk sees light ahead.
Florida had Sasha Barkov and Radko Gudas as practice Tuesday as well as Aaron Ekblad who appeared to sustain a shoulder injury in that loss to the Islanders.
“It’s obviously a great sign and means they are right there if they are skating with the main group,” Tkachuk said. “When our main group is together, we’re a very dangerous group. Guys have stepped in and done an amazing job, but it is really good to have … those guys back who have missed a whole chunk of time.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
MONTREAL CANADIENS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-1
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 51-38-11, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Dec. 30 at Carolina Hurricanes, 7:30 p.m.