SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida Panthers star Matthew Tkachuk went one step further than simply calling Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final a must-win for his team, indicating that the series hinges on what happens on Thursday night.
“You can’t make it a series unless you win this game tonight,” said the Panthers star, as the action shifts to South Florida after the Vegas Golden Knights won the series’ first two games at home.
“Coming back home, I think it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone. To take care of home ice, like we have all playoffs, and make this a series,” said Tkachuk.
Florida is only 4-3 on home ice in the playoffs, but they’ve had some big moments in Sunrise: Avoiding elimination in Game 6 against Boston, putting a stake in the Toronto Maple Leafs with a Game 3 overtime win and then closing an Eastern Conference Final sweep against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s a must-win. We know the situation,” said forward Anthony Duclair. “I think even going back to the Boston series, it’s just not a position you want to be in, but at the same time, it brings the best out of us. We’re just looking forward to the challenge, especially coming in at home.”
One of the biggest challenges for the Panthers against the Golden Knights has been navigating the physicality of this series. Florida came out hitting in both games. Vegas withstood that barrage and handed out a number of big hits of its own.
Florida coach Paul Maurice said he felt his Panthers were expending too much energy chasing checks against Vegas.
“I think the Boston series was more physical than this series. I think we’ve made this series more physical than it needs to be,” he said. “We had 22 hits in the first period of Game 2. Prorate that out and you don’t need 66 hits in a game. There’s an energy cost to that. We have hitters. You need to finish checks at times. But I don’t necessarily need [winger] Carter Verhaeghe having five [hits].”
Tkachuk said the Panthers will seek to impose their will from the opening faceoff.
“This is by far the biggest game of our season. We know what has made us successful to this point. We’re definitely not going to shy away from that,” he said.
The Panthers have also struggled with their discipline. Florida has taken 25 penalties for 130 penalty minutes in the first two games of the series. Vegas as taken 17 penalties for 82 minutes. Tkachuk alone has amassed three 10-minute misconduct penalties in the series.
“I think physicality and discipline are two different things. This one is a touchy subject right now for us, and we’ll just leave it,” said Maurice.
Assuming he’s not serving penalties, Tkachuk could see better defensive matchups in Game 3 as Florida gets the last line change. His line saw a lot of the Vegas checking line — William Carrier, Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar — in Game 1 and less of them in Game 2. The constant for the Golden Knights against Tkachuk’s line in both games was the defensive pairing of Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud, who matched up well against them in the attacking zone.
Maurice downplayed the notion that it was a line-matching series, saying that his concern for Game 3 is more focused on faceoff battles than line vs. line. Tkachuk was more focused on the ways he needs to improve in Game 3, as he’s been limited to one point — a Game 2 goal scored after Vegas had the game in hand — this series.
“I’ve got to try to have the puck more and take more pucks to the net. Normally when you’re around the net, good things happen,” he said. “Their ‘D’ do a good job of protecting the front of the net, but I think there’s more room around it just because they’re so close to it. So find those holes.”
The Panthers will need Tkachuk and the rest of their top end players to be difference makers soon in this series. As Maurice said, time is running out.
“There’s only five possible games left. We’ve got to win four of ’em. So this one’s a big one tonight,” said the coach.
Panther’s Matthew Tkachuk – Not a series without a win tonight