As he faces former rival in Stanley Cup Finals, Matthew Tkachuk talks Oilers matchup

Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) celebrate after teammates after their team’s win against the New York Rangers in Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.

When Matthew Tkachuk first joined the Florida Panthers ahead of the 2022-23 season after general manager Bill Zito pulled off the blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames, the star winger emphatically declared, “I hate Edmonton, but I hate Tampa more now.”

In the moment, he was talking about his excitement to get involved in a new local rivalry between the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning like he had with Calgary and the Edmonton Oilers in the Battle of Alberta.

Well, now that the Panthers are facing the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals, with Game 1 scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday, the question remains: Does Tkachuk still have the same hatred for Edmonton that he did when he played for Calgary?

“I don’t know,” Tkachuk said after practice Tuesday. “I wouldn’t say that, but any time you’re playing any opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals, you don’t even have to have a team rivalry or any rivalry with them. Right when the puck drops, it’s gonna be very intense like you’ve had that rivalry for years. We are very experienced going back to last year in this moment right now. There’s so much on the line, so I’m sure teams will go after it pretty good early and I’m sure both teams really, really want this.”

Tkachuk has played 32 career games against the Oilers, scoring 10 goals and adding 16 assists. He faced Edmonton once in the playoffs, during the 2022 second-round with Calgary. He logged a hat trick in Calgary’s Game 1 win and just one assist in the other four games, all losses.

This year, he enters the Stanley Cup Finals leading the Panthers with 19 points (five goals, 14 assists).

Panthers healthy entering Cup Finals

The Panthers have one advantage going into this year’s Stanley Cup Finals that they didn’t have last year when they lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights: For the most part, they are fully healthy and have the depth to offset injuries should they occur.

Last season, Florida did not have forward Eetu Luostarinen for the Cup Finals, lost Tkachuk late in the after an open-ice hit in Game 3 led to a fractured sternum and had top defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour dealing with a slew of injuries.

“We went into the finals with an unknown because we lost Luostarinen in the last game [of the Eastern Confernce final], so you go from ‘This is what are team looks like’ and then you step into the finals and you don’t know what your team looks like,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “But you know what? That’s all fair because neither team is going to be fully healthy going into the final. You’re here today. Somebody could fall off a curb. Those are the risks of being alive. But we’re healthy. We’re good.”

Added Montour: “Every team is going to have health issues coming this far in the playoffs. Luckily for the most part, guys are feeling pretty good right now. Obviously, each year is different, each series is different, but you get to that point and guys lay it all on the line. It’s a tough balance. ... This year is different and guys are excited for the challenge and have that itch to get going.”

The Panthers are also taking advantage of the fact that they have a week between wrapping up the Eastern Conference final and starting the Stanley Cup Finals to rest and recover.

“It’s probably the perfect amount of time off,” Maurice said. “You can take a couple of day and then you can push a little bit in the middle and get ready for the game. We are as healthy as you can be as a hockey club.”

A long way to go

The distance between Sunrise and Edmonton is 2,541 miles is the farthest between two teams competing in a Stanley Cup Finals in NHL history. The previous farthest was the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins in the 2011 Cup Finals, which came in at just less than 2,500 miles.

“Both teams have almost identical travel over the year,” Maurice said. “They have Calgary, and we have Tampa. That’s it. Two teams in one province; two teams in one state. Then everything else is a long flight. They’re used to it. It’s part of how they operate, and it’s the same with us. … We all know how to deal with it. I don’t know if there’s an advantage. Both teams have sort of identical time off, which is good.”