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Tkachuk, Verhaeghe just saved Stanley Cup Final and championship dream for Florida Panthers | Opinion

Matthew Tkachuk in his first season with the Florida Panthers has transformed an entire franchise, on the ice and off it

Around his skill, the team chanced to change coaches, made a major trade to get him — altered its entire approach to play the game in a more physical, playoff style. Off the ice, with vibrant personality Tkachuk became, instantly, maybe the club’s biggest star ever. The one who’s in People magazine. The one they invite onto the Miami Heat’s NBA Finals TV broadcast.

He already has had four game-winning goals this postseason. He is why the Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final.

Thursday, Tkachuk’s maiden season with Florida earned a whole new exclamation.

He just saved the season.

He just saved the championship dream.

With his tying goal with 2:13 to play in the third period of Game 3 Thursday night, Tkachuk took heart paddles to what was dying and gave it new life.

A team. Its fans. The NHL and its hope for a great Final. All of it.

Tkachuk’s late tying goal to force overtime at 2-2 —”It was a very easy goal, actually,” he said — is what allowed Carter Verhaeghe to score the winning goal 4:27 into the first sudden-death overtime for a 3-2 triumph.

Tkachuk had missed about half a period of ice time while in NHL concussion protocol before being cleared and all to return ... to be the hero again, a familiar role.

“We’ve seen it before with Matthew,” said coach Paul Maurice. “The mood on the bench in the last five minutes, [we had] that belief that it would happen. When we got to overtime we felt pretty good.”

Now the Panthers avoid a death-knell 3-0 series deficit and, down 2-1, have a chance to pull even Saturday night back at home.

Before Tkachuk tied the score after Florida had pulled goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the story line was the Cats’ failed power play and penalty kill — the phrase for that is “special teams” in hockey, just like they have in football. The difference is, when your special teams play on ice is not only not special but something closer to putrid, and it happens in the Stanley Cup Final, this is what the result can look like and feel like:

The end of a dream.

The Panthers’ goal of a first NHL championship in their first shot at one in 27 years faced life support down 3-0 before Tkachuk struck.

It was because the Cats had a special teams collapse on both ends.

Both of Vegas’ goals were with a man advantage on power plays as Florida again spent too much time in the penalty box without benefit of an effective penalty-killing unit. Meanwhile the Panthers’ own power play remained futilely useless — 0 for the Final. They failed to take advantage of all five power-play opportunities in Game 3 to make it a miserable 0 for 12 in this series.

One cannot overstate what a 3-0 hole would have meant in the hockey playoffs for the team with zero.

It is all but a death knell.

In the league’s history of seven-game series a team down 3-0 has come back to win four straight and take the series only four times in 206 occurrences -- or a tick under 2 percent.

Florida did not even pretend to downplay the urgent significance of Thursday night coming into the game, couching it as a must-win in every way but literally.

“This is by far the biggest game of our season,” Tkachuk said Thursday after the morning skate. “You can’t make it a series unless you win this game tonight.”

Even the coach Maurice found no way around the stark reality, saying, “Five possible games left and we gotta win four. So, yeah, big game.”

Now it’s four possible games left and they have to win three, still a small mountain.

Thursday marked the Panthers’ first Stanley Cup Final game at home since June 10, 1996 — but the first ever for Broward County and the arena in Sunrise. It has been so long the mind can forget that the Final in ’96 was at the old, long-since-demolished Miami Arena before the franchise moved a half hour or so north.

After being swept by Colorado in the ‘96 Final, Florida is now 1-6 all-time with Lord Stanley’s famous chalice the prize after Thursday’s historic first Final win.

Florida made the horn blast fast in Game 3, up 1-0 four minutes in on Brandon Montour’s goal on service from Tkachuk and Eric Staal and and a finishing wrist shot. It was Montour’s seventh goal of the postseason, second most on the team and an extra big total for a defenseman.

The lead wouldn’t last.

The Panthers’ penalty bug recurred and it was 1-1 late in the first period on a tip-in goal by Mark Stone, who was haunting the crease and slipped it past Bobrovsky. Vegas enjoyed a 4-on-3 advantage after Anthony Duclair was sent off for tripping, and the depleted Cats had nobody nearby to stop Stone from redirecting the shot.

It became 2-1 late in the second period — another power play victimizing the Cats — on Jonathan Marchessault’s wrist-shot goal with Florida’s Aleksander Barkov helpless in the penalty box, booked for interference.

Marchessault with the winning goal was a particular stinger for the Panthers. Some may recall he scored 30 goals in his only season with Florida (2016-17), but was inexplicably left exposed in the expansion draft and gobbled up by Vegas. It was a regrettable mistake by former general manager Dale Tallon that backfired hugely as Marchessault leads Vegas with 13 postseason goals.

There were a few distinct pregame themes coming from the Cats.

1. Been here, done that. Won three straight when down 3-1 to mighty Boston. So down 2-0 is not daunting.

That optimism has only been fortified.

2. The home crowd shall be the elixir that lifts us.

“Bodies are dragging at this point,” Maurice said. “It’s all adrenaline. So we’ve felt the home crowd very, very strongly.”

The home crowd did its part..

3. “Got to work a little harder, work a little smarter,” as Barkov said. (Smarter is code for: Quit spending so much time in the penalty box that we should be entitled to decorate it like a small apartment.)

“Need to be smarter in certain situations,” as Anthony Duclair put it.

Be smarter wasn’t entirely a success..

But Tkachuck, and then Verhaeghe, made up for all of that.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how we got here,” Tkachuk said. “All that was on our mind was to get the win.”

Somebody asked him f the Panthers had been counted out down 2-0.

“They all counted us out before the Final got started,” he said.

Tkachuk himself had said, “You can’t make it a series unless you win this game.”

It’s still a series now.

He made it so.