‘Who else, right?’ Hero Tkachuk for the Panthers again in Game 4

In a small hallway outside the Florida Panthers locker room, he grabbed him tightly, standing in front of a giant Panthers logo on the wall as photos and photos were taken of him and his father, Keith, and several others. combinations of family and friends.

This was their trophy. This was your trophy.

Time and time again, it was Tkachuk finding a way, scoring a goal, making the moments that matter most his own, grabbing the Panthers and pulling them along with him. So it was again on Wednesday night.

After the Hurricanes managed to tie the score with 3:22 left in regulation in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tkachuk won Frederik Andersen with the game-winning power-play goal 4.9 seconds into what would have been the third overtime in four games.

It didn’t go that far. Tkachuk did not leave, the 4-3 win in Game 4, sending the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Finals after a four-game sweep of the best-of-7 Conference Finals, with each game being decided by a single goal.

“Who else, right?” defender Aaron Ekblad he said. “Who else?”

And that was why Tkachuk held that trophy so tightly. He and the Panthers deserved it, scratching and scratching and exceeding expectations, beliefs and predictions, securing a trip to the Stanley Cup Final that felt like a ticket to literally every other team in the East.

Anyone other than the team that would now compete in the Cup.

“The last thing we’re going to do is be superstitious about not touching it,” Tkachuk said. “Like, nobody said we were going to make the playoffs. I find it really cool to touch it, carry it around and take pictures with it.

“[We] I definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We deserve it. I feel like if you’re blocking shots, getting hits, doing whatever it takes to earn a trophy like that, you might as well have fun.”

[RELATED: Complete Hurricanes vs. Panthers series coverage]

Because, again, they shouldn’t be here. Their run was supposed to end weeks ago at the hands of the Boston Bruins. They would be swept or at least lost in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round, crushed by the team that had won the most games and scored the most points in any regular season in NHL history.

Instead, the Panthers edged past the Bruins in Game 7 of the best-of-7 series, defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games in the second round, and ultimately eliminated the Hurricanes from the playoffs. All this, after a regular season in which the Panthers were in the playoffs for just 54 of 190 days and have now become the only team in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68) to reach the finals after spending less than 30 percent of the season into a playoff berth.

Could Ekblad have imagined this in January, when the team was floundering and the playoffs seemed a million miles away?

“No,” he said.

But Tkachuk dragged them there. He dragged them through a season where he is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, dragged them through the first and second rounds, and now, to the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s inexplicable what he brought to this team,” said Ekblad.

That’s why they didn’t panic when fast jesper tied the score with 3:22 left. Why didn’t they worry or get tense. They believed, as they had so many times.

“We know what we have in there,” Tkachuk said. “We know how to play. They score with three minutes to go, you would think, uh oh, here we go, what’s going to happen? But it’s the opposite.”

When the puck went in with 4.9 seconds left, Tkachuk slid across the ice on his knees, mouthguard dangling and fans going wild. On the bench, coach Paul Maurice punched assistant Jamie Kompon in the ribs and Ekblad rubbed beards with Marc Staal and the rats rained down, while the crowd totally ignored the scoreboard’s plea not to throw objects onto the ice.

They, after all, had been waiting so long for this.

“You come this far and play so hard to have a chance,” Ekblad said. “Just a chance.”

The Panthers have reached the Cup Final once in their 29-year history, in their third season of existence, 1995-96. They were swept by the Colorado Avalanche that season and have returned to the playoffs just seven times since, winning exactly one round (last season, against the Washington Capitals).

No one knows it like Ekblad, the #1 pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and Alexander Barkovselected number 2 in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the oldest Panthers on the team by far.

“It’s hard to explain now,” said Barkov. “It means a lot. To get to this point, you know how much work you have to do. You see how many great teams we’ve just beaten in the playoffs, so far. It wasn’t easy and nobody said it would be easy.

“But obviously we all know there’s another great series coming up.”

They lifted a trophy, took pictures with it, reveled in it, celebrated with it. That’s theirs.

But the Panthers are far from over. Because there is another trophy they intend to lift.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *