SUNRISE — Jesper Fast tied Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals with 3:22 to go, sucking the air out of FLA Live Arena. The crowd was getting ready to celebrate the Panthers clinching their first Stanley Cup Final berth since 1996, yet Matthew Tkachuk was unfazed.
He felt comfortable in that moment, as he has since he walked through the doors of this arena in July.
”Nothing rattles us,” Tkachuk said.
”When they score with three minutes left, you’d think ‘Uh oh, here we go. What’s gonna happen next?’ But it’s the opposite. It’s just so fun being at the rink right now.”
Tkachuk pulled the rest of the team together, picked up the pieces and charged on ahead.
And for the third time in the series, he was the hero once again.
The newest superstar in South Florida willed himself into the slot and unloaded a wrist shot that beat Frederik Andersen with 4.9 seconds to go leading the Panthers to a 4-3 win and sending Florida to the Stanley Cup Final.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy, but not too many guys have the patience he had at the end,” captain Sasha Barkov said.
“It was so loud, there was so much excitement. It was great.”
Tkachuk earned his status as an MVP candidate by showing up in big moments like this all season long.
He pulled one multi-point game after another seemingly out of thin air to help the Panthers stay above water in a regular season full of turmoil.
Tkachuk put the exclamation point on things in what would be Florida’s final win of the regular season, throwing a wrist shot from deep on net to sink the host Washington Capitals with a minute to go in regulation.
His care-free attitude in high-pressure moments coupled with his pure love for hockey dragged the Panthers into the fight as they embarked on their playoff journey.
In the four-game series against the Hurricanes, Tkachuk scored three of the game-winners, including two in overtime, to further his status as a premier superstar in the league.
”When you are watching that happen, you are just a fan,” coach Paul Maurice said.
“I’m a fan behind the bench. I can’t figure that guy out. So, he is on the that stage and he has the overtime winners and all of that.”
Tkachuk — and in some cases, his family — helped push his team over the edge in critical moments.
When the Panthers dropped four games in a row (with their last being to Ottawa captain Brady Tkachuk’s team), dad got involved.
Matthew’s father, NHL legend Keith Tkachuk, went on a Toronto radio station and ripped into the Panthers.
He called them names — said they were soft and were deserving of the losses to the Rangers, Senators and others — grabbing headlines in the process.
Later that night, the Panthers upset the host Maple Leafs thanks to Alex Lyon’s heroics in net and ended up winning six straight games to help get into the playoffs.
Matthew Tkachuk later joked that his dad felt he should be GM of the year for setting a fire underneath the Panthers and being a rallying cry for them.
A rumored altercation after Game 6 of the Bruins series by the Boston bus in Sunrise is suspected to have led Matthew trying to calm his dad down.
He confirmed that he has asked Keith to stay away from the media and just enjoy the games.
Florida captain Sasha Barkov, in a moment of true clarity, reacted to Matthew saying his father was on a media timeout “hopefully for a few more weeks.”
Leaning back in his chair a bit away from the microphone, Barkov muttered under his breath.
“We are here,” Barkov said, “because of him.”
Regardless of what happened with Keith Tkachuk and the Bruins or his rip job on Toronto radio, in the 10 months since arriving in Florida, Matthew Tkachuk has completely changed the culture surrounding the team.
His skill on the ice and his performance in high-pressure moments is not to be ignored, but he also became a bonafide leader the moment he stepped foot into the room.
”He is unbelievable,” Barkov said. “Ever since he first got here and I sent him my first text message, it felt like we knew each other for 10 years.
“The way he talked to me and the way he got everyone together in this organization and this team and how we spend time off the ice, he’s been an unreal addition to this team.
”Everyone sees what he is doing on the ice but off the ice, it’s eye-opening how great of a person he is and how he breathes hockey and everything around it every day.”
Tkachuk and the Panthers will continue to breathe hockey and chase the ultimate goal for a few more weeks.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
OR DALLAS STARS
- When: TBA
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas OR AmericanAirlines Center, Dallas
- 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 — TBA
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series Vs. Vegas (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Vegas Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series vs. Dallas (Stars Won 2-0):Dallas 6, @Florida 4 (Nov. 17); @Dallas 5, Florida 1 (Jan. 8)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Dallas Florida leads 24-21-2, 3 ties
- Postseason History: First meeting vs. both Vegas or Dallas