SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Keith Tkachuk has never played a game with the Florida Panthers and hasn’t recorded an NHL-level assist in nearly 13 years.
That is to say until March 29. It was the day he could have had Florida’s biggest assist of the season.
A rant on a Toronto radio station that morning by Tkachuk – a hockey legend and the father of Florida star Matthew Tkachuk – just coincided with the turning point of the Panthers’ season. Hours later, the Panthers beat the Maple Leafs to kick off a push that saw them qualify for the playoffs and ultimately advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“He’s still on hiatus,” Matthew Tkachuk said, explaining why he urged his father not to do any more interviews for the time being.
Never mind. His words live on and he didn’t offend the Panthers. They will enter the title round next week, with the first match in either Vegas or Dallas.
“We’re here because of him,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said.
Barkov was not joking. There have been countless reasons for Florida’s unlikely postseason run – a tight defense led by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, figuring out how to erase a 3-1 deficit against crushing favorite Boston at the first round, needing just nine games combined to oust Toronto and Carolina – but March 29 certainly provided some of the biggest moments of the season.
Matthew Tkachuk was the star flair for drama in the playoffs; nine goals, 12 assists, 21 points, two overtime wins over Carolina and the Eastern Finals winner with 4.9 seconds left against the Hurricanes to cap Florida’s first sweep.
That said, his dad seemed like a spark.
“I’m a little disappointed with the Panthers,” Keith Tkachuk said that morning in an interview with TSN 1050. “They’re a soft team and they’re getting everything they deserve right now.
It didn’t stop there. Keith Tkachuk also wondered how hard the Panthers were playing.
“It’s up to them to shake their butts and start playing like the team that should be a lot better than what they’re showing right now,” he said.
As he spoke, the Panthers were facing great odds to enter the playoffs. They had lost four games in a row. They trailed the Maple Leafs later that night 2-1 late in regulation, knowing that a loss could have been the beginning of an inevitable end. It was also the night Panthers coach Paul Maurice had seen enough, blasting his team in a second-period bench rant that went viral. His lyrics weren’t exactly radio-friendly.
Everything finally worked, and just in time. Sam Reinhart scored with a minute left in regulation time, Brandon Montour scored in overtime, and Florida won 3-2. As of that night, the Panthers have won 18 of their last 24 games, 10 of those comeback type wins, including seven in overtime.
No one calls them sweet now.
“The race was unreal,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “It’s not like anything has changed with our team. … I mean, I’m just surrounded by so many great players who make it super, super easy for me. And I feel so lucky. Just being here, being with this team, it’s been incredible since July when I arrived here.
Keith Tkachuk played 18 seasons in the NHL, finishing his career with 538 goals and 527 assists in the regular season, then another 28 goals and 28 assists in 89 playoff games.
But he never made the Stanley Cup final. So there’s a certain irony here: He couldn’t get Winnipeg, Phoenix, St. Louis or Atlanta there – but his words obviously played a part in Florida only getting there for the second time in franchise history, the other being 27 years ago.
Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t even alive at the time. And now he’s four wins away from lifting the Cup, largely because of his three wins over the Hurricanes.
“He’s a gifted, gifted man,” Maurice said.
More than a decade after hanging up his skates, his dad still has a flair for big moments too.
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