The whistle blew for a power play with 57 seconds left in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday and Aaron Ekblad, from his place on the Florida Panthers’ bench, thought the same thing Panthers fans — and, probably, NHL fans — across the world certainly were thinking, too.
Matthew Tkachuk was on the ice and, with an extra-man advantage, it was almost hard to imagine the superstar right wing not scoring another game-winning goal.
“If you’re sitting on the bench,” the star defenseman said Wednesday, “you’re about as confident as you could possibly be with that group.”
It took more than 52 seconds until only 4.9 seconds remained, but the wait only added extra drama. Tkachuk did it again. His third game-winning goal of the series, all on the final shot of the game, sent Florida to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 with a 4-3 win and sweep of the Hurricanes in Sunrise.
“Chucky’s that guy,” left wing Ryan Lomberg said Wednesday. “No surprise.”
Added forward Anton Lundell: “I saw it was Chucky, so from there I was just waiting for it to go in.”
Said six-time All-Star center Eric Staal: “It’s pretty special.”
In Game 1, Tkachuk ended the sixth longest game in NHL history with a game-winning goal with 12.7 left in quadruple overtime. In Game 2, he scored another walk-off goal in overtime for the Panthers to steal back-to-back games in Raleigh, North Carolina.
His series-winning goal was historic — the latest series-clinching goal in regulation in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs — and he became only the seventh player in NHL history to score three game-winning goals in a single semifinal series.
The late-game strategy has become simple for Florida.
“Do what you can to put it on Chucky’s stick,” said Sam Reinhart, who had one of the assists on the series-winning goal, “and see what happens.”
The forward started the game-winning play by firing a shot from the left face-off circle and the rebound bounced to the other side of the ice where Aleksander Barkov picked it up. The All-Star center — always more of a power-play facilitator than finisher — held onto the puck and waited for the Hurricanes’ defense to bend toward him.
The captain knew the plan.
A space opened to get the puck to Tkachuk behind the net and Barkov made the pass. Center Sam Bennett set a screen on star goaltender Frederik Andersen, Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce panicked and tried to push Bennett out of the way, and inadvertently created a pile-up in the crease and Tkachuk took advantage of the chaos.
The 25-year-old All-Star thrives on it. He wheeled around from behind the net into the slot, got a clean look at the net and popped another clutch shot into the top left corner.
“Who else, right?” Ekblad said.
It was Tkachuk’s ninth goal of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs — he also scored a power-play goal in the first period Wednesday — and his 21 points were the second most in these Stanley Cup playoffs, entering Thursday. Those 21 points, all recorded in this first postseason as a Panther, are already the third most postseason points in franchise history.
Staal, who won a Stanley Cup as a Hurricane in 2006 and went to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a Canadien in 2021, can’t recall ever seeing anything like this run from Tkachuk.
“This hasn’t been the first, second, third—I don’t even know how many times, but there’s been so many moments,” the 38-year-old forward said. “People are now seeing him and the player he is. This is going to continue for him. This is who he is. He’s not afraid of these times and these moments, and that’s what makes him special is he just keeps playing. He’s comfortable, he knows who he is, comfortable in his skin and these are moments that he’s built and made for. It’s just a treat to watch. It’s a treat to play alongside.”
Coach Paul Maurice has a similarly long track record in the NHL. Only three people have coached more games than the 56-year-old Canadian and he guided Carolina to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final.
He also, as the coach of the Jets from 2014-2022, was a frequent victim of Tkachuk’s when the star winger played for the Flames.
Coaching Tkachuk is not what he signed up for when he agreed to come to South Florida in the offseason — the Panthers wouldn’t trade for Tkachuk for about another month — and he still can’t totally comprehend it or explain what he’s seeing.
“I don’t know. I don’t know any better than you do,” Maurice said Wednesday. “When you’re watching that happen, you’re just a fan. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’m just a fan behind the bench. I can’t figure that guy out.”
©2023 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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