SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Keith Tkachuk had never played a game for the Florida Panthers and had not recorded an NHL-level assist in nearly 13 years.
That is, until March 29. That’s the day he had arguably Florida’s biggest helper of the season.
A rant on a Toronto radio station that morning by Tkachuk—a hockey legend and the father of Florida native Matthew Tkachuk—coincidentally coincided with the Panthers turning their season around. Hours later, the Panthers defeated the Maple Leafs to start a push that saw them storm into the playoffs and eventually storm into the Stanley Cup Finals.
“He’s still in time-out,” Matthew Tkachuk said, explaining why he was urging his father to stop doing interviews now.
Does not matter. His words live on and he didn’t offend the Panthers. They go to the title round next week, with Game 1 in Vegas or Dallas.
“We’re here because of him,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov.
Barkov was not joking. There have been myriad reasons for Florida’s unlikely postseason run – airtight defense led by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, figuring out how to erase a 3-1 deficit against overwhelming favorite Boston in Round 1, 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 flair-for-drama star of the playoffs; nine goals, 12 assists, 21 points, two overtime winners against Carolina and the East Finals winner with 4.9 seconds left against the Hurricanes to sweep Florida’s first sweep of all.
That said, his father certainly seemed like a spark.
“I’m a little disappointed in the Panthers,” Keith Tkachuk said in the interview with TSN 1050 that morning. “They’re a soft team and they’re getting everything they deserve now.”
It didn’t stop there. Keith Tkachuk also wondered how hard the Panthers played.
“It’s up to them to give their best and start playing like the team that should be a lot better than what they’re showing now,” he said.
As he spoke, the Panthers had great chances of just getting into the postseason. They had lost four in a row. They trailed the Maple Leafs 2-1 late into regulation later that night, knowing that a loss could have been the beginning of an inevitable end. That was also the night Panthers coach Paul Maurice had seen enough and busted his team in a second-period bench ration that went viral. His words weren’t exactly radio-friendly.
It all worked out in the end, and just in time. Sam Reinhart scored with one minute remaining, 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 variety wins, seven of them in overtime.
Nobody calls them soft now.
“The ride was surreal,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “It’s not like anything has changed about our team. … I mean I’m just surrounded by so many great players who just make it super, super easy for me. And I feel so happy. Just being here, being with this team, it’s been incredible since July when I got here.
Keith Tkachuk played 18 NHL seasons and finished 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 it to the Stanley Cup final. So there’s some irony here: he couldn’t get Winnipeg, Phoenix, St. Louis, or Atlanta there – but his words apparently played a part in Florida getting there for only the second time in franchise history, the other being 27 years ago .
Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t even alive then. And now he has four wins of the Cup hoist, largely due to his three game winners against the Hurricanes.
“He’s a gifted, gifted man,” said Maurice.
More than a decade after hanging up his skates, his dad still has a flair for big moments too.
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