There’s an old adage in sports that sometimes the best rallies are the ones you don’t make. However, this is not the motivational phrase that will start the book on the 2022-2023 season of the Panthers.
The Floridians continued their magical spring on Wednesday night, beating the Carolina Hurricanes by a score of 4-3. They thus conclude an impressive and implausible sweep against a team perceived until last week as a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.
Without any kind of surprise at this point, it was Matthew Tkachuk who sent his team to the final. Keith’s son made Dad happy by scoring the goal before his eyes that eliminated the Hurricanes with five seconds left on the clock. It was, just that, his third game-winning goal of the series. And he got an assist on Sam Reinhart’s in Game 3. If there were a French translation for the epithet “clutch”, it is at this point in the text that it would be found.
The resurrection of Sergei Bobrovsky, in recent weeks, has put his name at the heart of the discussion for the presentation of the Conn-Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs. The keeper, we understand, deserves all the compliments he gets these days. He concludes the series with a delusional efficiency rating of .966. The brain of a star La Presse columnist could well explode.
However, Matthew Tkachuk seems in a class apart. He is simply in a state of grace. His phenomenal season pulled the Panthers into the playoffs, and he’s already been nominated for the Hart Trophy. Now his performance in the playoffs could earn his team a Stanley Cup.
We evoked, at the opening of this piece of journalistic anthology, the best exchanges that we do, or not. Brad Treliving, ex-general manager of the Calgary Flames, has to watch games with a lump in his throat these days. Backed up against the wall by a star player who had already announced that he did not wish to commit to the Flames on a long-term basis and who provided him with a very limited list of destinations, Treliving, as we remember, traded Tkachuk to the Panthers for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weager and a first-round pick.
The Flames season was, as we know, catastrophic. However, they have what it takes to become a powerhouse in the Western Association again next year.
The Panthers, however, hit the home run of all home runs, which otherwise wrapped up a bumper crop from GM Bill Zito. In the past two years, he has additionally acquired Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour, all through transactions. We could also add to the list Carter Verhaeghe, hired a few months earlier. They and Tkachuk represent five of the Panthers’ six leading scorers in this series, sixth being Aleksander Barkov.
Zito’s track record obviously isn’t perfect – Ben Chiarot, anyone? –, but it is clear that he had the lucky hand.
Tailor-made for playoff play, Bennett, another Flames alum, was superb on Wednesday. Reinhart spent almost five minutes on the ice shorthanded and helped keep the Hurricanes quiet. Verhaeghe was in the center of the action when his line partner Anthony Duclair opened the scoring in the first minute of the game. Montour continued to swallow the minutes in the three phases of the game.
No matter who of the Vegas Golden Knights or the Dallas Stars joins the Panthers in the Finals, we know that there will be no one, but then no one, to doubt Paul Maurice’s men. It will even be very difficult to believe that the team without Matthew Tkachuk will be able to win.
This triumph of the Panthers is obviously the fall of the Hurricanes. And she is brutal.
After collecting 113 points in the season, and given the quality of the players in the training, any conclusion other than a Stanley Cup would have been a disappointment. But a sweep, even in the association final, is certainly a nightmare. All the more so when it comes to the second in five years in the third round.
Rod Brind’Amour thus joins his colleagues Jim Montgomery and Sheldon Keefe in the reduced brotherhood of head coaches who will spend a long tormented summer after having tasted the medicine of the Panthers. In the case of the Hurricanes, the fault is not difficult to determine. Six small goals scored in four games. Of course, the exploits of Bobrovsky. But such an offensive anemia remains unacceptable.
Imagine: goaltenders Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen had a .921 save percentage and a goals-against average of less than two goals per 60 minutes. These numbers, in the vast majority of scenarios, should result in a winning record. We know the end of the story.
No need to list the culprits: all players have turned off. All. It was a problem in the first round against the New York Islanders, but we saw an explosion against the New Jersey Devils in the next round. The breakdown, this time, was total. And fatal.
Inevitable questions will have to be clarified during the approaching summer. Random: Can Jesperi Kotkaniemi fill a second center position in a top team? A colleague pointed out during Wednesday’s game that the Finn had just been eclipsed by another Tkachuk. This is not nice, and we strongly condemn this gratuitous and mean-spirited remark.
But it’s still true.
Brutal, albeit legal, his check against Jaccob Slavin at the start of the first period set the tone for the game. He finished the night with 6 shots and 4 hits. Dominant.
He played a grand total of 54 seconds at five against five in the third period, and zero seconds at all in the final 9:56. For the second game in a row, he was his club’s least used (healthy) striker. The message is clear.
That’s Sebastian Aho’s and Brent Burns’ total goals in this series. They had scored 36 and 18, respectively, during the season.