SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Keith Tkachuk never played a game for the Florida Panthers, and hadn’t recorded an assist at the NHL level in nearly 13 years.
That is, until March 29. That’s the day he might have had the biggest helper of Florida’s season.
A rant on a Toronto radio station that morning by Tkachuk — a hockey legend and Florida star Matthew Tkachuk’s dad — just happened to coincide with the Panthers turning their season around. Hours later, the Panthers beat the Maple Leafs to start a push that let them squeak into the playoffs and ultimately roar into the Stanley Cup Final.
“He’s still in timeout,” Matthew Tkachuk said, explaining why he’s urged his dad to not do more interviews right now.
Doesn’t matter. His words live on, and he didn’t offend the Panthers. They're going to the title round next week, with Game 1 at either Vegas or Dallas.
“We’re here because of him,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said.
Barkov wasn't kidding. There have been countless reasons for Florida's improbable postseason run — airtight defense led by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, figuring out how to erase a 3-1 deficit against overwhelming favorite Boston in Round 1, needing only nine games combined to oust Toronto and Carolina — but March 29 certainly provided some of the season's biggest moments.
Matthew Tkachuk has been the flair-for-drama star of the playoff run; nine goals, 12 assists, 21 points, two overtime game-winners against Carolina and the East final-winner with 4.9 seconds left against the Hurricanes to cap Florida’s first sweep of anybody.
That said, his dad sure seemed to be a spark.
“I’m a little disappointed in the Panthers,” Keith Tkachuk said that morning in the interview with TSN 1050. “They’re a soft team and they’re getting everything they deserve right now.”
It didn’t stop there. Keith Tkachuk also questioned how hard the Panthers were playing.
“It’s up to them to get their butts going and start playing like the team that should be a lot better than what they’re showing right now,” he said.
As he spoke, the Panthers were facing long odds of just getting into the postseason. They had lost four straight. They were trailing the Maple Leafs later that night 2-1 late in regulation, knowing a defeat could have been the beginning of an unavoidable end. That was also the night that Panthers coach Paul Maurice had seen enough, blasting his team in a second-period bench rant that went viral. His words weren’t exactly radio-friendly.
It all eventually worked, and just in time. Sam Reinhart scored with a minute left in regulation, Brandon Montour scored in overtime and Florida won 3-2. Starting with that night, the Panthers have won 18 of their last 24 games, 10 of those victories of the comeback variety, seven of them coming in overtime.
Nobody’s calling them soft now.
“The ride’s been unreal,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “It’s not like anything’s changed with our team. … I mean, I’m just surrounded by so many great players that make it just super, super easy for me. And I feel so lucky. Just being here, being with this team, it’s been unbelievable since July when I got here.”
Keith Tkachuk played 18 NHL seasons, finishing his career with 538 goals and 527 assists in the regular season, then another 28 goals and 28 assists in 89 playoff games.
But he never made the Stanley Cup Final. So, there’s some irony here: He couldn’t get Winnipeg, Phoenix, St. Louis or Atlanta there — but his words evidently played a role in Florida getting there for only the second time in franchise history, the other being 27 years ago.
Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t even alive then. And now he’s four wins from hoisting the Cup, largely because of his three gamewinners against the Hurricanes.
“He is a gifted, gifted man,” Maurice said.
More than a decade after hanging up his skates, his dad still has a flair for big moments, too.
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