Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk dons goggles, goes full ‘Florida Man’ in Breakaway Challenge

Matthew Tkachuk really likes being a Florida Panther and he wants to make sure everyone knows it.

The All-Star right wing has spent most of the last six months telling everyone about how much he likes his new life with the Panthers. At the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Friday, he got a chance to show it.

As the final participant in the NHL Breakaway Challenge, Tkachuk made his routine all about South Florida. He placed Brady Tkachuk in a beach chair and got Aleksander Barkov to dress up like a lifeguard. He draped a towel around his shoulders, placed a bucket hat on his had and strapped scuba goggles to his face. The All-Star right wing even got Christian Wilkins to go out on the ice with him, waving a pool noodle to fire up the friendly Sunrise crowd.

“A lot of people,” Tkachuk said, “are pretty jealous of where Barky and I get to play.”

On a night of gimmicks, Tkachuk didn’t deviate too much from the norm — his actual shot was mostly unspectacular, bouncing the puck on his stuck as he approached, catching it in his bucket hat and then shooting everything past Roberto Luongo, who was wielding a pool noodle instead of a stick — and it got him a second-place finish in an underwhelming Breakaway Challenge by delivering one of the few highlights of the day for FLA Live Arena.

“The goggles, I will say, I added last minute,” Tkachuk said. “I was flipping it, I immediately regretted it.”

The winner, instead, was the combination of All-Star forwards Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, who got the top score after Sergei Ovechkin, the Washington Capital’s 4-year-old son, scored and Max Kerman of the Arkells awarded Tkachuk a 2 of 10.

“That was a joke,” Barkov deadpanned, stone-faced. “We need to find the guy.”

The score wasn’t what mattered, though.

Tkachuk insists he hasn’t been bragging to other players around the league about how close he lives to the beach and what the weather is like in Florida. He said they don’t need a reminder.

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Still, his routine reminded everyone — just like the whole weekend has — and it can be, he believes, a boon for the franchise, especially with he and Barkov in the first season of eight-year deals.

“There’s an off-ice part and everything that comes with playing for the Panthers, and everything that guys are seeing now,” Tkachuk said. “It’s like, Wow. You have players that want to play here forever and also it doesn’t suck outside the rink, so I think it’s a great weekend to show the top players.”

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Most of the All-Star Skills Competition was pretty dull, though — even Tkachuk admitted parts of the event dragged.

A year ago, the NHL positioned the Breakaway Challenge as its signature Skills event, turning it into something like the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest — a style competition, with goofy props and costumes, and, hopefully, a spectacular athletic feat.

Superstar Trevor Zegras made the event worth the hype in 2022, donning an Average Joe’s jersey from “Dodgeball,” wrapping a blindfold around his head and then scoring on an absolutely nasty spinning shot to win the competition.

Zegras, however, didn’t make the 2023 NHL All-Star Game and just about everyone seemed to take the wrong lessons from the 21-year-old American’s spectacle, and he clearly thought the same thing: About halfway through the night after two unspectacular attempts, the Anaheim Duck tweeted out a sleeping-face emoji. The Skills Challenge was mostly a snoozer.

All-Star right wing Mitch Marner kicked off the festivities by coming onto the ice dressed James “Sonny” Crockett from “Miami Vice,” with a white suit and pink skates, and even an intro video in the style of the old NBC show.

Unfortunately, the Toronto Maple Leaf’s attempt was lame — a lazy wrist shot right into the chest of Luongo, who served as the celebrity goaltender throughout.

Next up — after a long wait because the four Breakaway attempts were inexplicably spread throughout the night — was All-Star right wing David Pastrank and he went with another gimmick.

After a quick introductory video from a golf course, Pastrnak took the ice for a routine inspired by “Happy Gilmore” — he is a Boston Bruin, after all — and the shots were just as lame. He took one Happy Gilmore-style swing from the opposite blue line, then a shot from the other blue line with a normal putter and finally one more from right on the edge of a crease with a Gilmore-style hybrid golf-hockey stick.

Ovechkin and Tkachuk delivered the two best Breakaway moments, and neither was because of spectacular play, but rather crowd-pleasing moments.

“It was fun,” Tkachuk said. “Some get a little long, but at the end of the day it was fun. It’s great being around the guys.

Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk waves to the crowd after being dunked as part of the Splash Shot challenge on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the NHL All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk waves to the crowd after being dunked as part of the Splash Shot challenge on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the NHL All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach.

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Tkachuk also took part in one of the two Florida-specific events.

On Thursday, he and his younger brother, teamed up in the NHL Splash Shot on Fort Lauderdale beach and he wound up in a dunk tank after All-Star defenseman Cale Makar hit five targets fast enough to send him splashing down.

“That event was really cool,” Tkachuk said. “There was a ton of people there. It was a great turnout. ... It was hot out, so I was actually pretty fortunate to go in that tank.”

Makar and All-Star forward Mikko Rantanen, both of the Colorado Avalanche, wound up winning the Splash Shot.

On Wednesday, four All-Stars also descended Plantation Preserve Golf Course & Club for the NHL Pitch ‘n Puck. The competition had four skaters approach an island green with hockey sticks and puck, and then try to putt a ball into the hole with a hockey stick in as few strokes as possible.

All-Star Nick Suzuki of the Montreal Canadiens won the Pitch ‘n Puck by holing out in three strokes.

Florida Panthers Aleksander Barkov (16) takes a shot during the accuracy competition during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.
Florida Panthers Aleksander Barkov (16) takes a shot during the accuracy competition during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.

The rest of the winners

All-Star forwards Elias Pettersson, Andrei Svechnikov and Brock Nelson won the three most traditional events at the Skills Competition, taking home the victories in the NHL Hardest Shot, NHL Fastest Skater and NHL Accuracy Shooting, respectively.

Pettersson, from the Vancouver Canucks, fired a slap shot 103.2 mph on the second shot of the competition and no one else even cracked triple digits to get an easy win.

Svechnikov, from the Carolina Hurricanes, skated around the rink in 13.699 seconds to win the Fastest Skater, edging out All-Star winger Kevin Fiala of the Los Angeles Kings in the final.

Nelson, from the New York Islanders, hit the four targets at each corner of the net faster than All-Star center Nazem Kadri of the Calgary Flames to win the Accuracy Shooting.

Barkov finished eighth in Accuracy, taking 25.297 seconds to hit the four targets after shattering one on his first shot.

“At least I got a little more time on the stage,” he quipped.

In the Skills Competition’s other first-time event, All-Star goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Juuse Saros teamed up to win the NHL Tendy Tandem for the Atlantic Division.

Hellebuyck and Saros — of the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, respectively — scored 13 points in the new competition, accumulating points by alternately firing full-ice shots and denying odd-man breakaway attempts.