Matthew Tkachuk’s moment still might serve as a spark for Florida in Game 6 at Edmonton

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The save got all the rave reviews when talking about Matthew Tkachuk’s performance for the Florida Panthers in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers, and with good reason.

It’s been replayed countless times, the play where Tkachuk takes off down the ice in the final seconds, the puck moving ahead of him on what seems to be an inevitable course into an empty net, and he dives headfirst while flailing his stick across the playing surface barely in time to knock it away before he slides into the net with his mouthpiece, as always, hanging askew.

But that wasn’t the Tkachuk highlight that Florida coach Paul Maurice has liked most from this matchup. His favorite — one he’s shared with the Panthers over and over in recent days — was one where a backchecking Tkachuk found a way to get the puck off Edmonton star Connor McDavid’s stick earlier in the series and probably helped stop a goal.

“I watched that 100 times,” Maurice said.

To Maurice, those are the plays to serve as reminders that Tkachuk — the guy who played in last year’s Stanley Cup Final with a broken sternum, an injury that made it hard to breathe and hurt so much that he needed help with things like getting out of bed, putting his pads on and tying his skates — will do whatever it takes to win a title. Denied in Game 4 and again in Game 5, Tkachuk and the Panthers get a third chance to close out the series when the Cup final returns to Edmonton for Game 6 on Friday night.

The save was in vain; McDavid scored on that play anyway to wrap up a 5-3 win for the Oilers in Game 5. But to Tkachuk, what he did was simply what the moment required.

“Tried to skate as hard as I can back to not allow a goal, and once I realized that it might go in, I just tried to sprawl out as much as I could to prevent it from going in,” Tkachuk said Thursday before the Panthers left for Edmonton. “Kind of got lucky with the puck, the way I was able to whack it with my stick. It’s kind of what our whole team’s like, playing until the very end.”

The mood was light at Panthers practice on Thursday, officially a 19-minute session on the ice, just enough to go over a few things and get people into a bit of a sweat. A 5 1/2-hour flight to Edmonton awaited for what the Panthers hope will be the final game of the season. If the Oilers win on Friday, Game 7 will be Monday night in Sunrise, Florida.

“It’s another great challenge for us going into Edmonton,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Another long trip, so we get to spend a lot of time together on the plane and in the hotel. We can’t wait to get playing again tomorrow.”

And yes, Tkachuk’s save was still a big talking point in the room.

“It was huge,” Barkov said.

Added forward Ryan Lomberg: “He’s one of the best players in the world. He’s one of our main leaders. When guys like that lead by example, everybody else is well on board.”

Tkachuk had a goal and an assist in Game 5, doubling his point total — no goals, one assist — from the first four games of the series combined. The goal in Game 5, which started Florida’s attempt to come back from what was a 3-0 deficit that night, was just his second in the Panthers’ last 16 games.

“When your leaders are leading, everyone follows behind,” Florida forward Evan Rodrigues said. “I think it was big for him to get a goal there and probably the best game he’s had this series. I think when he’s at his best, he’s just a force. He’s unstoppable, he’s big, he wants the puck, he wants contact when he has the puck.”

He was a spark in Game 5. Maybe he’ll be enough of a spark in Game 6 for Florida to finish the job. The Panthers should have a better understanding now of what it takes to get the biggest win that a hockey team can get, Maurice said.

“There’s a truth to kind of desensitization to extreme events,” Maurice said. “A fireman, firewoman, first day on the job, first fire they go to, it’s on. There’s a lot going on. And 10 years in, ‘Yeah, the blaze is three times the size, doesn’t matter, I’m going in.’ There is something to that. So, the more playoff experience you get as a group — I’m not saying there’s going to be less juice — it’s just you’re not going to be overwhelmed by it because you’ve felt it.”


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