SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk‘s hands — the ones that were so recently snapping a puck into the wide-open side of the Carolina Hurricanes net for the seconds-left game-winner that would send FLA Live Arena into hysterics — were now wrapped around the Prince of Wales Trophy.
In a small hallway, just outside the Florida Panthers locker room, he gripped it tightly, standing in front of a giant wall-mounted Panthers logo as picture after picture was taken of him and his dad, Keith, and various other combinations of family and friends.
This was their trophy. This was his trophy.
Time and again, it had been Tkachuk finding a way, scoring a goal, making the biggest moments his own, grabbing the Panthers and pulling them along with him. So it was again Wednesday night.
After the Hurricanes had managed to tie the score with 3:22 remaining in regulation of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final, Tkachuk beat Frederik Andersen with the game-winning, power-play goal 4.9 seconds from what would have been the third overtime in four games.
It didn’t get that far. Tkachuk didn’t let it, the 4-3 win in Game 4 sending the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final after a four-game sweep in the best-of-7 conference final, with each game being decided by a single goal.
“Who else, right?” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “Who else?”
Which was why Tkachuk was gripping that trophy so tightly. He and the Panthers had earned it, scratching and clawing and blowing past expectations and beliefs and prognostications, securing a trip to the Stanley Cup Final that had seemed ticketed for literally any other team in the East.
Anyone other than the team that would now be playing for the Cup.
“The last thing that we’re going to do is be is superstitious about not touching it,” Tkachuk said. “Like, nobody said we were even going to make the playoffs. I think it’s pretty cool to touch it, carry it around and take pictures with it. We earned that thing.
“[We] definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it. I feel like if you’re blocking shots, taking hits, doing whatever it takes to win a trophy like that, you might as well enjoy it.”
Because, again, they weren’t supposed to be here. Their run was supposed to end weeks ago, at the hands of the Boston Bruins. They were going to be swept or, at least, lose in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round, crushed by the team that had won the most games and earned the most points in any regular season in NHL history.
Instead, the Panthers barreled their way 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, finally, swept the Hurricanes out of the playoffs. All this, after a regular season in which the Panthers were in a playoff spot for only 54 of 190 days and have now become the only team in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68) to reach the Final after spending less than 30 percent of the season in a playoff spot.
Could Ekblad have imagined that back in January when the team was foundering, and the playoffs seemed a million miles away?
“No,” he said.
But Tkachuk dragged them there. He dragged them through a season in which he is a Hart Trophy finalist as the most valuable player in the NHL, dragged them through the first round and second round and now, into the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s unexplainable what he’s brought to this team,” Ekblad said.
Which is why they didn’t panic when Jesper Fast tied the score with 3:22 remaining. Why they didn’t worry or get tight. They believed, as they have done so often.
“We know what we have in there,” Tkachuk said. “We know how to play. We know the right way to play, we know what makes us successful. And being in it with the guys and seeing the belief and just the calmness to us is really something special. Like, nothing rattles us. They score with three minutes left, you’d 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, his mouth guard dangling and the fans going crazy. 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, as the crowd utterly ignored the plea from the scoreboard not to throw objects on the ice.
They, after all, had been waiting so long for this.
“You come this far and play this long for a chance,” Ekblad said. “Just a chance.”
The Panthers have been to the Cup Final once in their 29-year history, back in their third season of existence, 1995-96. They were swept by the Colorado Avalanche that season and have been back to the playoffs just seven times since, winning exactly one round (last season, against the Washington Capitals).
No one knows that like Ekblad, the defenseman selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and Aleksander Barkov, selected No. 2 in the 2013 NHL Draft, the longest-tenured Panthers on the team, by far.
“It’s hard to explain right now,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. To get to this point, you know how hard you need to work. You see how many great teams we just beat in the playoffs, so far. It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.
“But obviously we all know there’s another big series coming up.”
They have lifted one trophy, taken pictures with it, basked in it, celebrated with it. It is theirs.
But the Panthers are far from done. Because there’s another trophy they intend to lift.