SUNRISE, Florida — Matthew Tkachuk’s third game-winning goal of this postseason came with just 4.9 seconds left and delivered the eighth-seeded Florida Panthers to their first Stanley Cup Final in 27 years.
With their 4-3 victory Wednesday night, the Panthers completed a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals — Florida’s first playoff series sweep in franchise history. The Panthers, who scraped into the postseason as a wild card, will now make their second Cup Final appearance, and first since 1996. They await the winner of the Vegas Golden Knights-Dallas Stars series.
Regardless of who that next opponent is, Tkachuk is determined for Florida enjoy the ride.
“It’s going to be the best few weeks of our lives hopefully,” he said. “We talked about that in the room. It’s something we’re all really excited for.”
Tkachuk’s clutch score, which came on a Florida power play, was his second of the night.
“We’re lucky to have Chucky on our side,” said Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. “He’s been great all playoffs. We’re just lucky to have him.”
“Who else, right?” added Aaron Ekblad. “What he’s done (this season) is unexplainable.”
“Everyone sees what he’s doing on the ice,” said captain Aleksander Barkov. “But what he does off the ice (to prepare) is eye-opening.”
NHL senior vice president Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. There was no hesitation on Tkachuk’s part to touch it.
“We’re not the type of team that’s going to be superstitious,” he said, referring to past tradition where players won’t hoist any trophy until the Cup itself. “We earned that thing. We did it the hard way.”
The Panthers gave themselves a chance to close out the Hurricanes after earning a 1-0 victory in Monday’s Game 3, powered by a 32-save shutout from Sergei Bobrovsky. Florida’s netminder was stellar again Wednesday with 36 saves. Frederik Andersen stopped 21 shots at the other end to give Carolina a chance at extending the series.
Florida was in control early in Game 4, taking a 1-0 lead just 41 seconds into the first period when Anthony Duclair slipped a puck past Andersen amid a mad scramble in front of Carolina’s net.
That was just the start of a nightmare stretch for the Hurricanes.
Right after Duclair scored, Panthers forward Sam Bennett laid a massive check on Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin as he played the puck behind his net. Slavin hit his head against the boards and was later ruled out with an upper-body injury. He told reporters after the game he was OK and thought the Bennett check was clean. The Hurricanes would also lose forward Stefan Noesen to an upper-body injury.
“When you look back at this, it’s tough to get far without your top players,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said of his team losing key personnel. “But I can’t ask for more out of this group than what we got.”
Tkachuk gave Florida a 2-0 advantage on the power play when Sebastian Aho went to the box for interference, the first time — in nearly 14 periods of play to that point — that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.
The Hurricanes, in need of a boost, got one when Paul Stastny pushed a puck under a sprawled-out Bobrovsky. That was the first even-strength goal a Carolina forward had scored against Florida and halted Bobrovsky’s save streak — going back to Game 2 — at 72.
Florida carried a 2-1 lead into the second period, but Carolina didn’t waste time evening the score when Teuvo Teravainen tallied his first playoff goal minutes into the middle frame.
The Panthers took the lead back with a goal from Ryan Lomberg off a tic-tac-toe play from fourth-line teammates Marc Staal and Colin White. Florida held a 3-2 advantage in the third period and defended it against a desperate Carolina team trying to keep its season alive.
Searching for the equalizer, Carolina had a critical power-play opportunity midway through the third that turned up four shots on Bobrovsky but no goal. It wasn’t until late in the third period, with just under 4 minutes to play, that Jesper Fast solved Bobrovsky again with a quick strike from in front to tie the score at 3.
A late tripping call on Carolina captain Jordan Staal gave Florida a power-play chance with 57 seconds remaining in regulation. Tkachuk beat Andersen with 4.9 seconds on the clock. Brind’Amour challenged the play over goaltender interference, but Tkachuk’s goal stood to punch Florida’s ticket to the Cup Final.
It was a tough pill for Brind’Amour and his team to swallow, seeing their promising 113-point regular season end with such a thud.
“Did we deserve better?” Brind’Amour wondered after the loss. “I think so. That’s the unfortunate part of this. (Everyone) will look back and say you got swept. That’s not what happened. I watched the game. I’m there. We’re in the game. It could have been four games the other way.”
Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.