SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk is quiet in these moments. As the pressure mounts and the questions swirl, as the weight of the ticking clock bears down, the member of the Florida Panthers who has had the most to say about these Stanley Cup Playoffs and in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, quiets down.
And then, over and over and over again, he makes the crowd roar.
He did it again Thursday, snatching a victory away from the Vegas Golden Knights and breathing new life into a team and a postseason run that was nearing life support. The minutes and seconds and season had been ticking down for the Panthers, as their power play remained impotent and their offensive chances mostly weak, and it seemed that maybe the end of the magic was finally finding them.
Until Tkachuk stepped in.
“There’s that belief that it can happen,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “There’s an intensity on the bench about good things that can happen.”
Because they’ve seen it before. From their team. From Tkachuk.
With 2:13 left in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at FLA Live Arena — and the Panthers trailing 2-1 in the game and 2-0 in the best-of-7 series — Tkachuk did what he has done before, scoring a game-tying goal to force overtime, where Carter Verhaeghe tallied the 3-2 winner at 4:27.
Instead of having their season on the brink, the Panthers trail 2-1 in the best-of-7 series. Game 4 is here Saturday (8 p.m. ET; TNT, TBS, truTV, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“That’s where I spend most of my time on the ice,” Tkachuk said of that area just outside the crease. “My dad’s (Keith Tkachuk) always said, ‘Pucks cannot go through you if it’s going to go in, so why not go to the net?’ I was just in the right place at the right time. The puck just landed right on my stick. Just had an open net.
“It was a very easy goal, actually.”
With goalie Sergei Bobrovsky pulled for an extra skater, Verhaeghe took a shot on Golden Knights goalie Adin Hill from the top of the right face-off circle. The rebound kicked off Hill’s right skate to where Tkachuk had gotten inside position on defenseman Zach Whitecloud just outside the crease.
He had little more to do that flick the puck in.
“Matthew made a great play,” Verhaeghe said. “Just got open. He’s so good around the net. Just try and get the puck to him there. Made a great play.”
Tkachuk has seven goals in the third period or overtime this postseason. Only seven players have had more in one playoff year: Steve Payne (10 in 1981), Frank Mahovlich (nine in 1971), Jari Kurri (nine in 1988), Yvan Cournoyer (eight in 1973), Joe Mullen (eight in 1989), Cam Neely (eight in 1991) and Claude Lemieux (eight in 1995).
“I think he’s really kind of ascended to the idea of how important he is to our team,” Maurice said. “That he has to be on the ice and he has the puck. And he’s looked like that.”
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But the fact that Tkachuk was even in the game at that point had been in question earlier. At 5:56 of the first period, Vegas forward Keegan Kolesar delivered a massive shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Tkachuk. Five seconds later, Golden Knights forward William Carrier was called for high-sticking. After playing on the ensuing power play — the end of that shift for Tkachuk came at 7:16 — Tkachuk was pulled because of concussion protocol, according to Maurice.
Not that Tkachuk was worried as he walked down the tunnel.
“I knew I was coming back,” he said.
And he did. He returned to the ice at 4:26 of the second period.
“He’s going to come back, no matter what,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s a really tough guy and he’s going to battle through everything. He’s huge for us and him coming back, it was a huge boost for us.”
As Tkachuk said, “I feel great. I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”
The first two games of the Cup Final hadn’t necessarily been the best for Tkachuk. Florida’s biggest star over the first three rounds had one point — a goal in Game 2 that came after the game was well in hand for Vegas — and 36 penalty minutes.
“This time of year, there’s not much room,” Panthers forward Sam Reinhart said. “You’re not going to be feeling every game. You’re not going to be having those points. Like, a guy like that is used to having four by the time the game’s over. He stuck with it. It’s timely goals at this time and, no surprise, he’s the guy to extend it for us to night and give us a chance in overtime.”
They took that chance. They won the game. They are back in the series.
“At the end of the day, nobody cares how we got here,” Tkachuk said. “It’s a 2-1 series. We came into this game just to win one game. We did that.
“We’re going to do the exact same thing going into Game 4 — just win that one game.”