NHL – Matthew Tkachuk leads Florida Panthers to Stanley Cup finals

by Jacob Fuller

Rob Issa, FISM News

Matthew Tkachuk talked about bringing a Stanley Cup to South Florida when he joined the Panthers last summer. Now, he’s only four wins away.

Tkachuk scored two goals, including the game-winner with 4.9 seconds remaining, Sergei Bobrovsky made 36 saves and the Florida Panthers beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night to complete a sweep.

The Panthers are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1996. They’ll face Las Vegas or Dallas. The Golden Knights lead the West finals 3-0 and can advance with a victory on Thursday night.

Tkachuk scored overtime goals in the first two games of the series on the road and delivered in the clutch again to clinch the series. With Carolina captain Jordan Staal in the penalty box for tripping, Tkachuk slipped a shot past goaltender Frederik Andersen to send the No. 8 seed Panthers to the Cup for the second time in franchise history.

“I still think not many people believe,” Tkachuk said.

I mean, the people in this area support and believe in us — but there’s not many people out there that do, still. And we know that we’ve played some really good teams so far in these playoffs and we know that the next team is going to be unbelievable as well. More points, more wins, more whatever. We’ll be the underdog, trying to prove people wrong again.

The Panthers overcame a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against Boston, which had the best record in regular season history. They eliminated Toronto in five games in the semifinals and then swept the Hurricanes, who were division champions.

“We know what we have in there, we know how to play, the right way to play, (and) we know what makes us successful,” Tkachuk said. “Being in it with the guys and seeing the belief and just the calmness to us is really something special.”

While Tkachuk has led the way in the postseason, veterans Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad have stepped up and Brandon Montour has been superb at the blue line. Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett, and Sam Reinhart have also made significant contributions.

But the Panthers wouldn’t be here without Bobrovsky, who didn’t even start the playoffs as the No. 1 goalie.

Alex Lyon was Florida’s starting goaltender in the first round after going 6-1-1 down the stretch when Bobrovsky was sidelined with an illness. But Lyon gave up five goals on 30 shots in Game 3 of that series and was replaced late in the third period by Bobrovsky. The veteran goalie has been brilliant, going 11-2 with a .935 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average into his first Cup finals appearance.

“It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

Only two other teams in the NHL have defeated three of the top four regular-season clubs in the playoffs to reach the Stanley Cup finals: the Montreal Canadians in 1969 and the New York Islanders in 1980. Both won the Cup.

The Hurricanes won 52 games in the regular season and their third straight division title. But they lost in the conference finals for the second time in coach Rod Brind’Amour’s five seasons.

“Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports