With the seconds draining, with the moment calling, Matthew Tkachuck moved unhurried with the puck, even as everything accelerated before him. Bodies piled up. Defenders twisted to reach him.
Tkachuk, his mouthpiece hanging out as always like a dog’s chew toy, moved across the front of the Carolina net, as if there weren’t only a handful of seconds left in the game, as if he might be able to personally hold back the second-hand of time if it caused a problem, considering his other feats of magic during the Florida Panthers’ improbable run through the postseason.
Three overtime goals. A franchise-record in playoff points. One goal already this Game 4 and now this oh-so-deliberate coup de grace to Carolina.
“The patience he had at the end,” said teammate Aleksander Barkov, “not too many guys have that.”
Tkachuk clutched the puck with the stick once but didn’t shoot. He kept moving — patiently sliding across the front a few feet, until a sizable chunk of open net appeared before him.
“It was fairly easy of me to put it in,” he said of his game-winning, series-ending, Stanley-Cup-Final-sending goal with 4.9 seconds left in the Panthers’ thrilling 4-3 win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Barkov chuckled at that, saying beside him, “I wouldn’t say it was easy ... but we can talk about that later.”
That goal completed an unlikely sweep of Carolina, the first time the Panthers swept anyone in franchise history. It also elevated Tkachuk’s star up yet another notch. This was essentially his third walk-off goal of the four games in this series. How does he keep doing it?
“I don’t know,” coach Paul Maurice said. “I mean that. I don’t know any better than you do. When you’re watching that happen, you’re just a fan. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’m a fan behind the bench. I can’t figure that guy out.”
Earlier Wednesday, Panthers general manager Bill Zito was named a finalist for NHL executive of the year. Part of that was pulling off a trade with Calgary last summer for Tkachuk, 25.
The Panthers had their first marketable star since Pavel Bure. Tkachuk doesn’t have Bure’s silky goal-scoring ability. But then Bure has none of the sandpaper grit Tkachuk brought this season to his 109 regular-season points that ranked sixth in the league.
All that’s why Tkachuck was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. The possible awards are piling up for this team in a manner no one could have expected. That’s what success brings. There’s plenty of it to share in seasons like this.
But back to Tkachuk’s arrival: One of his first actions was to take the training staff out for dinner. The comparatively little people. The hard workers. That sent a message through the organization of the kind of player they got.
“When he got here, his first message, I thought we knew each other for 10 years the way he talked to me and the way he got everyone together in this organization,” Barkov said. “He was an unreal addition.”
The Panthers broke hockey tradition by actually holding the Eastern Conference trophy. That’s supposed to bring bad luck.
“We’re the type of team, the last thing we’re going to be is superstitious about not touching,” Tkachuk said. “No one said we were going to make the payoffs. I think it’s pretty cool to touch it and take pictures and carry around. We earned it. We definitely didn’t do it the easy way.”
If the Panthers drew from the full roster to reach the finals, two players stood out: goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and Tkachuk. Bobrovsky has been the league’s top goalie the last two series. Tkachuk has been a sensation. He’s loving it, too.
“The ride’s been unreal,” Tkachuk said. “Each game is like a one-goal game ... I feel so lucky. Just being here with this team — it’s been unbelievable since July when I got here. Hopefully, I can cap of this amazing year in the next few weeks.”
The Panthers have earned a breather while waiting for the Western Conference finals to end. Las Vegas is up, 3-0. The Stanley Cup Final is expected to start next Wednesday at the earliest, meaning the Panthers will get plenty of rest.
“We know what’s coming,” Tkachuck said.
His final move, and winning shot, was defined by patience. But then this franchise has waited 27 years to return to the finals. It returns with a new face of the franchise. The Panthers have never had a player like him.