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There’s Life In The Old Cat Yet

SUNRISE, FLORIDA - JUNE 08: Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Florida Panthers scores a goal past Adin Hill #33 of the Vegas Golden Knights during the third period in Game Three of the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup Final at FLA Live Arena on June 08, 2023 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Network executives were perhaps not entirely thrilled with Matthew Tkachuk when he potentially threw Game 4 under the bus to pump the tires on Game 3. With Florida down 0-2 heading into Thursday's tilt, Tkachuk said in no uncertain terms that the Cup Final would be decided last night if the Panthers couldn't claw out a win. "You can't make it a series unless you win this game tonight," he said in a kind of reverse-conditional guarantee. Well, the big shiny narrative MacGuffin/effluvia receptacle was not in the building just yet—you still have to actually win four—but with the Golden Knights out-everythinging the Panthers in Vegas, the team from Sunrise was tasked with making sure the alarm clock didn't ring on their long-shot title dreams. Fortuitously for the Panthers' hopes—and those networks' all-important inventories—Tkachuk was able to at the very least hit the snooze button.

Tkachuk was in the middle of everything in Florida's 3-2 overtime win, with no goal in franchise history bigger than his series-saver with 2:13 left in regulation to send it to overtime, where Carter Verhaeghe dismissed the home fans cheerily just 4:27 in. There was Tkachuk, winning board battles to keep the puck in the attacking zone before setting up the no-longer-missing Brandon Montour for the game's opening score. There was Tkachuk, getting rung up on a clean hit from Keegan Kolesar, then stumbling as he attempted to skate back to the bench, prompting the concussion-spotter upstairs to yank him from the game midway through the first. He would not be cleared to return until a few minutes into the second period, by which time Vegas had tied things on a Mark Stone tip.

The story through the first two games had been Vegas playing the game it wants and Florida playing the game Vegas wants: the Panthers, frustrated at every turn, falling back on their physicality, almost entirely to their detriment. Having an identity is nice; not taking 25 penalties while getting outscored 12-4 would have been nicer. "We had 22 hits in the first period of Game 2," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said before this one. "Prorate that out and you don't need 66 hits in a game. There's an energy cost to that." The Cats had delivered 80 hits through the first two, and it was clear in Game 3 that the mandate had come down to lay off a little, to let skill tell. Florida recorded just 14 hits, but when they did cross the line—and the game was called pretty tight—Vegas made them pay: both of the Knights goals came on the man-advantage, with current Conn Smythe favorite Jonathan Marchessault tallying his 13th of these playoffs to take the lead toward the end of the second.

It can be frustrating to not take out your frustrations, even/especially in an unconstructive manner. But the Panthers, who've faced elimination three times already, are used to patience paying off. “At that point, it’s almost like you’re fighting mentally. Stay in it, stay in it," said Sam Reinhart. "A moment like that kind of turns it around for you." "That" being Tkachuk's desperate right-place right-time goal as time was winding down. (Also please note and appreciate Aaron Ekblad's close-quarters work to keep this one alive.)

“We’ve seen it before with Matthew,” Maurice said. “The mood on the bench in the last five minutes, that belief that it would happen."

That moment completely flipped the script. Before it, it was more of the same: Adin Hill was standing strong; the Panthers' special teams were a mess; Vegas was just too complete a team. None of those storylines are wrong now, but the gamer reads a little differently. Sergei Bobrovsky is capable of stealing a game. The blue line, specifically Montour and Ekblad, is driving the offense again. Tkachuk is still the man you want in big moments. The Panthers don't lose when they can't afford to.

And when Verhaeghe sniped home the winner, it felt like classic Cardiac Cats, even in the franchise's very first Cup final victory.

The smart money remains on Vegas, who controlled the majority of this game, who still don't really have a glaring weakness, and who aren't going to take their foot off the gas now after a bit of a scare in the last round. But Tkachuk was right about the big thing: It's a series now.

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