The Stuff of Legend: Tkachuk’s latest heroics send Panthers to Stanley Cup Final

What in the world will Matthew Tkachuk do for an encore?

It seems like a simple question, though what the Florida Panthers winger has already done is the stuff of legend and now includes three game-winning goals (including two in overtime) while assisting on the other as his team secured a four-game series sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

Tkachuk’s latest heroics came on a power-play goal that required video review for goalie interference before it counted, with 4.9 seconds to go in regulation time on what proved to be the series-clincher in a 4-3 victory at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday night.

“Chucky knows how to score big goals,” Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky told reporters. “His composure and his hockey IQ, he’s such a smart player. It’s a big goal. He’s been great for us all season long, especially in the playoffs.”

Tkachuk, a Hart Trophy finalist, has been a force and a true offensive ignitor, firing home a team-leading nine goals and 21 points in 16 games through three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“The patience he had at the end, not too many guys have that, but we can talk about that later,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov told reporters on Wednesday, with Tkachuk seated at the podium to his right. “He’s unbelievable. It’s hard to talk about the guy who sits right next to me, but ever since he got here, the first message (Tkachuk sent), it was like we knew each other for 10 years. The way you talk to me and the way you get everyone together with this organization and with this team, how we spend time off ice.

“It’s just been an unreal addition. Everyone sees what he does on the ice, but off-ice, it’s been eye-opening with how great of a person he is. How he breathes hockey and everything around it every day. It’s unreal.”

As the Panthers advance to the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history — and first since the Rats run of 1996 — they’ve now eliminated the top seed in the NHL (the Boston Bruins), the second seed (the Hurricanes) and the fourth-ranked team in the regular season (the Toronto Maple Leafs) and will either face the Vegas Golden Knights (fifth) or Dallas Stars (eighth), should they find a way to rally from an 0-3 deficit.

Since falling behind 3-1 in the first round against the Bruins, the Panthers have now won 11 of the past 12 games — the lone exception being Game 4 against the Maple Leafs.

Tkachuk joked that he needs to do more interviews alongside Barkov more often, given how complimentary he was towards him.

When the conversation turned toward the Panthers staying alive despite being the 16th seed, Tkachuk set the stage for the role to continue.

“We have tons of support now. The people in this area support and believe in us, but to tell you the truth, there’s not that many people that do — still,” Tkachuk told reporters. “We know that we’ve played some really good teams so far in this playoff and we know the next team is going to be unbelievable as well. More points, more wins, more whatever than we have.

“It’s kind of that similar feel of being the underdog and trying to prove people wrong again. We know what we have in there. We know how to play, we know the right way to play and we know what makes us successful. Being in it with the guys and seeing the belief and seeing just the calmness to us, is really something special. Nothing rattles us. It’s just so fun being at the rink right now. We’ve got a few weeks left of this and we talk about this in the room. It’s going to be the best weeks of our lives, hopefully. It’s something that we’re all really excited for.”

Tkachuk was also quick to show his teammates that it was okay to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy during the presentation and that it was an accomplishment to be celebrated, even though the Panthers have a bigger goal in mind.


To say there was a controversial element to the game-winner was entirely accurate as Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal was sent to the penalty box for tripping Panthers defenceman Gustav Forsling with 57 seconds to go in the third period.

Staal tried to steal the puck from Forsling in the offensive zone, but when his stick went between the skates of the Panthers blue-liner, he fell to the ice and the arm of the nearest official went up.

Given what had gone unpenalized throughout the series, this was certainly a tough call.

Had it resulted in a scoring chance, you can understand why Staal was sent to the box.

Since it didn’t and the game was tied — after the Hurricanes evened the score with 3:22 to go — swallowing the whistle in that situation would have been preferred by many.

“It was a stupid penalty. I had one hand on my stick,” Staal told reporters. “My stick went against my leg and then against his leg. I don’t think I hit him very hard, but apparently (it was) hard enough for him to fall down. It wasn’t a very good penalty. It wasn’t fun being in the box.”


This was the first time in eight games that Bobrovsky allowed more than two goals in a start, but it wasn’t because he had an off night by any stretch of the imagination.

Bobrovsky was busy once again, turning aside 36 of 39 shots he faced as he continued to shine.

When Paul Stastny located a puck that caromed off the post and was behind Bobrovsky and scored, that snapped a shutout streak of 133 minutes and 11 seconds.

To put that into further perspective, the last time the Hurricanes scored a goal was when defenceman Jalen Chatfield redirected a perfect slap pass from Sebastian Aho in the first period of Game 2.

The cameras caught Bobrovsky having an emotional moment in the crease shortly after Tkachuk scored the series clincher and you can bet it had something to do with the circuitous journey he’s taken to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career.

After losing the starting job to Spencer Knight and then Alex Lyon, who essentially saved the Panthers season, Bobrovsky has found a level of performance that is simply outstanding.

He’s now 11-2 with a 2.21 goals against average and .925 save percentage in his 14 appearances, including 13 starts.

“I’m enjoying this moment. It’s a great opportunity, a great spot,” said Bobrovsky. “It’s a privilege for me to compete shoulder to shoulder with them. We’ve gone through lots of things, lots of adversity. I really appreciate the opportunity.”


Panthers centre Sam Bennett delivered a devastating hit on Jaccob Slavin that knocked the Hurricanes defenceman out of the game just 1:27 into the first period.

Slavin was trying to get control of a rolling puck below the goal line and Bennett caught him with a hard shoulder to the chest.

While Slavin put himself in a somewhat vulnerable position with his head down, this was a clean hit.

Bennett did a great job of ensuring his elbow was tucked in and that he was coasting at the time the check occurred.

Slavin’s head hit the boards and his stick was knocked out of his hands because of the impact of the check.

It was an unfortunate result for the Hurricanes’ steady blue-liner, who has been fantastic throughout these playoffs.

As Slavin tried to get up to his feet and make his way to the bench on his own volition, he fell awkwardly to the ice, so it was no surprise when the Hurricanes officially ruled him out of the game late in the first period.

With Slavin in concussion protocol, the Hurricanes finished the game with five D-men, which meant a significant increase in ice time for the pairing of Brett Pesce (25:51) and Brady Skjei (25:40), while Brent Burns logged close to his usual (24:55).

Skjei had his best game of the series, finishing with a pair of assists and he was also heavily involved in the sequence of events that led to Jesper Fast’s game-tying goal with 3:22 left in the third period. 


Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour still appeared to be in disbelief as he spoke to reporters in Florida after the game and you can understand why.

This wasn’t a matter of being outplayed or not following the game plan or anything along those lines.

As he answered questions, Brind’Amour made the case his team could have been the one celebrating a series sweep and this wasn’t just sour grapes or a wild proclamation.

“Deserve a better fate? I think so, to be quite honest,” Brind’Amour told reporters. “Guys went down, we’re losing our best players and we just kept playing. From the seat I had, that was a pretty good game. A pretty impressive effort. It’s the way we’ve been all year. In these four games, it’s a tough way to end, like that. That’s going to be tough, for sure. I’m proud of what we’ve built here and the guys we have.”

As Brind’Amour continued, you could tell how tough this loss was to swallow.

“The unfortunate part of this is that everyone is going to look back and say you got swept. That’s not what happened,” he said. “I watched the game. I’m there. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have (gone) the other way, four games the other way.

“We took huge steps this year. Coming this far, with what we were missing, is pretty impressive.”

Even in the moments that followed this heartbreaking loss, the Hurricanes’ belief remains.

“We gave it all we had, we worked hard right until the end,” said Staal. “I’m proud of this group. We’ve been kicked in the crotch all year long and we keep pressing and keep pushing and (Wednesday) was no different.

“We’re going to learn from this and this core group is going to find a way to get to the end.”

What’s shocking is that the Hurricanes have now lost 12 consecutive games in the Eastern Conference Final, as they’ve been swept in 2009, 2019 and now 2023.


Barkov was back in the lineup for Game 4 after leaving the previous contest in the first period with a lower-body injury.

Barkov had a great impact in his return, earning a pair of assists — one on the opening goal of the contest, then a second assist on the series-clincher from Tkachuk.

He showed no limitations and was contributing in all areas, skating 22:15 (including 4:01 on the power play and 4:55 on the penalty kill) and finishing with two shots on goal, four hits and two blocked shots.

As for the response, Barkov’s right-winger Anthony Duclair did an excellent job to get things started for the Panthers in Game 4.

After being held without a shot on goal in Game 3 and limited to 10:54 of ice time, Duclair came out flying and buried a goal 41 seconds into the contest, converting his own rebound after rattling his initial shot off the crossbar.


Panthers D-man Aaron Ekblad has been through a lot of ups and downs during his nine seasons in the organization and the first overall pick at the 2014 NHL Draft now has the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career.

“It’s a cool feeling, no doubt about it,” Ekblad told reporters, asked about winning the East. “At the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different and it’s a great opportunity, a chance to do it.”

As for the rats thrown on the ice in an homage to the 1996 run and the emotions he was feeling after the final buzzer sounded, Ekblad was succinct.

“I can’t even explain it. It’s great. It’s awesome. We love it.”

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