NHL playoffs: Panthers complete sweep, stun Hurricanes on Tkachuk's late winner

The Panthers' incredible run of upsets continued with a sweep of the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final.

It’s no longer a Cinderella run.

Matthew Tkachuk scored the game-winning goal with 4.3 seconds remaining as the Florida Panthers completed a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes with a 4-3 win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday.

Here are five takeaways from the Panthers’ series-clinching win, as Florida advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.

All stats from Natural Stat Trick and, unless stated otherwise.

Matthew Tkachuk is the NHL’s most clutch player

By the very definition of being named as a Hart Trophy finalist, Tkachuk was one of the NHL’s three best players this season. During the playoffs, Tkachuk has made it clear that he’s the NHL’s most clutch player, perhaps only rivalled by his teammate and goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky.

We’ve written about Tkachuk’s flair for the dramatic throughout this series. He scored the game-winner during a quadruple-overtime epic in Game 1, then repeated his feat fewer than two minutes into the first overtime period of Game 2.

Matthew Tkachuk scored with less than five seconds remaining to push the Panthers past the Hurricanes and into the Stanley Cup Final. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Matthew Tkachuk scored with less than five seconds remaining to push the Panthers past the Hurricanes and into the Stanley Cup Final. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Tkachuk is known to cross the line with his physical play but the lone time he got into an after-the-whistle skirmish, he ended up earning a power play for the Panthers, with Brent Burns and Jordan Martinook joining him in the adjacent box. He scored two goals in Game 4 on five shots in all situations. His primary line, consisting of Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins, outshot its opponents 10-3 at 5-on-5 in Game 4. And none of this really would’ve mattered unless Tkachuk managed to score in the biggest moments consistently.

Not only is he one of the world’s best players, he’s been the most clutch player in the league throughout the playoffs and the Panthers are four wins away from immortalizing this new superlative for the 25-year-old winger.

Sergei Bobrovsky comes back to Earth but he’s still unbeatable

Bobrovsky is the frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy and he’s morphed into an impenetrable force for the Panthers during the playoff run. Bobrovsky recorded his first-ever postseason shutout in Game 3 but he showed signs he was human on Wednesday, flubbing the puck during Paul Statsny’s first-period goal. It didn’t seem to matter. Although Bobrovsky’s shutout streak that spanned 133 minutes and 11 seconds was finally snapped, he was still the best player on the ice during Game 4.

Bobrovsky made 36 stops and saved 1.36 goals above expected, as the Panthers knocked off a higher-seeded opponent for the third consecutive round. It’s not entirely fair to say the Hurricanes were merely stumped by historically good goaltending as it would discount the contributions of the rest of the team, but Bobrovsky is the headlining factor. He allowed five total goals in the four-game sweep and made several stops against a Hurricanes team that often posted superior shot and chance creation differentials.

Any discussion of this series starts with Bobrovsky and is punctuated by Tkachuk. Bobrovsky didn’t even begin the playoffs as the Panthers’ starter. Now he’s on track to bolster what could be an unconventional ticket to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Hurricanes controlled the predictive stats but it didn’t matter

Predictive stats are useful in bettering one’s understanding of the modern game, but they’re only helpful to a degree — you can expect all the goals you want, but it has to materialize into actual goals. You have to feel for the Hurricanes, who were probably the better team on paper and it didn’t matter one bit.

Carolina outshot Florida 39-24 and controlled 53.7 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 in Game 4. Over the course of the four-game series, Carolina outshot Florida 143-110, controlling 57.35 of the expected goals at 5-on-5. In all situations, Carolina’s shot advantage jumps to 355-272 with a 58 percent share of the expected goals. This is good to know — not only did the Hurricanes refuse to roll over and die, they threw everything they could at the Panthers.

None of this really matters in the long run. Florida outscored Carolina 6-4 at 5-on-5 and 10-6 in all situations. When we remember this series five years from now, all people will remember is Bobrovsky elevating to a different tier and Tkachuk’s three game-winning goals. It’s too bad, because within the margins, the Hurricanes deserved better than a four-game sweep.

Sam Bennett burnishes reputation as one of the NHL’s biggest pests

Bennett is establishing himself as one of the NHL’s biggest pests but you have to be skilled in equal measure to earn this distinction, or else fans and opponents alike won’t care. Bennett played his quintessential game on Wednesday, setting a screen on Tkachuk’s game-winning goal.

To make it clear, we’re never going to celebrate injuries but it’s worth noting Bennett’s massive, legal hit on Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin changed the tenor of the game. Slavin was ruled out shortly before the first intermission.

Bennett finished the game with a game-high six shots in all situations, threw four hits, drew a penalty, and generated a team-high 0.64 individual expected goals at 5-on-5. Beyond the stat sheet, Bennett won puck battles, got in the Hurricanes’ faces, set screens and did all the little things that teams need in order to win in the postseason.

He’s not just a pest who is producing above what’s expected of him. Bennett has registered 11 points in 15 games and though he’s the probable enemy of Maple Leafs and Hurricanes fans — no one in Toronto will forget he went unpenalized for giving Matthew Knies a concussion in Game 2 of the second round — Bennett does more than just agitate, and he’s a central part of the Panthers’ first run to the Final since 1996, the year he was born.

Anthony Duclair and Gustav Forsling are the Panthers’ unsung heroes

If you read the headlines, Florida is a two-man team consisting of Bobrovsky and Tkachuk. That would be wildly unfair. Florida’s depth has shone throughout the playoffs and we have to give our flowers to Duclair and Forsling.

Duclair’s tremendous speed is noticeable in-person and it kept the Hurricanes’ defense on its heels throughout the series. The 27-year-old scored the game’s opening goal when Frederik Andersen lost track of the puck in his skates, and he was an offensive dynamo in Game 1 with two assists and eight shots. Prior to their playoff run, the Panthers’ team speed was their defining quality and few exemplified this better than Duclair. He’s a smart and opportunistic player who won’t take unnecessary risks and will be a handful for the Golden Knights or Stars — OK, c’mon, it will be the Golden Knights — to handle in the Final.

Forsling was nearly out of the NHL but he’s been an excellent first-pair option alongside his more heralded defense partner, Aaron Ekblad. The 27-year-old registered his first point of the series on Tkachuk’s first of two goals in Game 4 but like Duclair, he did all the small things well. Forsling has been on the ice for 16 goals for, eight against throughout the playoffs and he’s capable of occupying huge minutes for the Panthers, playing 55:41 in the Game 1 epic.

Duclair and Forsling will never get top billing but if the Panthers win the Stanley Cup, expect their stories to resonate across the hockey world.