NHL playoffs: Panthers' Matthew Tkachuk is rising to the moment by getting physical

Tkachuk has scored some of the biggest goals of the playoffs, but that's no surprise. What's made his postseason style different is his physicality.

Matthew Tkachuk is precisely the kind of player who's expected to perform well in the playoffs.

He's big, strong, skilled, and possesses the capacity for agitation that satisfies those who believe they can ascertain the strength of a player's desire to win via the eye test.

Despite possessing those qualities, his postseason record entering 2022-23 was far from spotless. In 27 games with the Calgary Flames he managed just 15 points with an ugly minus-11 rating to his name.

He wasn't the same player in some of those runs that he's become in the last two years, but it's easy to take our understanding of who he is as a player, combine it what he's doing now and assume he's always lived for this time of year.

While that isn't the case, Tkachuk is putting together an unimpeachable resume as a playoff performer with his recent work as the Florida Panthers' offensive centrepiece. He ranks third among playoff skaters in goals (nine) and second in points (21), while skating 22:48 minutes per night.

On Wednesday, he became the 29th player in NHL history to score three game-winning goals in a single playoff series by putting a dagger in the hopes of the Carolina Hurricanes.

It's easy to marvel at how well Tkachuk has played in these playoffs, but his production hasn't strayed far from his outstanding regular season. In fact, his points per game in the postseason (1.31) is a touch below his regular-season rate (1.38).

The dominant narrative states that Tkachuk has elevated his game to a new tier thanks to his team's success. But when it comes to raw production, he's just conducting business as usual.

Matthew Tkachuk, center, has a reputation for being an agitator, but he's taken his physicality to another level in the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Tkachuk has more to offer than just point scoring, though, and a look at a couple of the other aspects of his game reveals that he has been a different guy in the postseason. That begins with his possession numbers.

His raw totals have gone down slightly due to improved competition, but relative to his teammates he's been even better. The Panthers have struggled to carry the play at even strength in the playoffs but not when Tkachuk is on the ice:

Via Hockey-Reference
Via Hockey-Reference

Florida has been outshot 354-253 at 5-on-5 when Tkachuk's not on the ice during its postseason run, but when he's present the Panthers have a 154-110 advantage in the shot column.

While helping Florida control the puck, Tkachuk has made a noticeable effort to separate his opponents from it. Despite his reputation for physical play, the winger had just 68 hits during the regular season (0.86/game). During the playoffs, he has 52 hits in 15 games (3.25/game).

That's more than a small-sample-size blip, it's a change in philosophy.

It's difficult to quantify the value of Tkachuk's newfound taste for hitting, but it's worth noting he's drawing more penalties on a per-game basis during the playoffs (0.81) than he did during the regular season (0.49). That's impressive considering the caution referees sometimes exercise during the postseason.

In the midst of Florida's magical underdog run to the Stanley Cup Final, Tkachuk has authored plenty of dramatic moments — and he deserves plenty of credit for driving his team's offense. At the same time, he set such a high bar during the regular season that his current production is more commendable than surprising.

What he has done to adapt to the postseason game is throw his body around at a rate we haven't seen before. It's hard to know exactly how much that contributes to wins and losses, but it's tough to argue with the results.