Tkachuk dives to stop puck crossing goal line Game 5 61824

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Perhaps the lasting image from Tuesday night, at least for the Florida Panthers, was a diving Matthew Tkachuk barreling into the Panthers’ empty net, attempting to keep the puck out, attempting to keep the dream of ending the Stanley Cup Final alive. He slid on his stomach down the slot, stick outstretched, and batted the puck away just inches before it crossed the goal line with 21 seconds remaining.

He had barely gotten up, gotten out, when Connor McDavid made the effort moot with an empty-net goal at 19:41, giving the Edmonton Oilers a 5-3 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final to once again extend the series that the Panthers once led 3-0.

Now, the Panthers are facing another long, long plane ride ahead of Game 6 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Friday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS).

And yet, after the game, they were not raging. They were not angry. Disappointed in themselves, sure. Disappointed that they would have to return to Edmonton. Disappointed that they weren’t spending the night drinking Champagne out of a Cup they had worked all their lives to win.

But not crushed. No, not crushed. More ... calm.

“We’ve just got to win one game,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “It’s as simple as that. We’re not thinking about that. We’re just thinking about winning one game.”

Are they feeling pressure?

“No, no, no,” Tkachuk said. “It’s not an elimination game for us right now. We’re going up there. We have a 3-2 series lead. Just got to take care of business like we did in Game 3 (a 4-3 win in Edmonton).”

Earlier in the day, Tkachuk had sat at a podium at the Panthers’ practice facility. He stopped short of guaranteeing that the Final would be over after Game 5, but he came close, brimming with confidence in himself and his team.

“We have a chance to capture the biggest goal of our lifetime, so we're going to go do that,” he said.

They didn’t. They couldn’t.

But there was something else he said on Tuesday morning that rang true. When asked about his own play, about whether he could do more or needed to do more for the Panthers, he agreed. As he put it: “I thought last game was nowhere near good enough. I'm way better than that. Maybe the last four periods, going back to the third period of Game 3, I can be a lot better.”

He was all that and more on Tuesday.

It was vintage performance from Tkachuk, at least starting midway through the game, the type of performance he regularly put on last season as the Panthers made their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final.

“He was unbelievable tonight,” Bennett said. “He elevated his game and the boys followed. We need that from him, for sure.”

He was everywhere, all over the ice, a dervish of wanting and needing this to be over. He finished the game with a goal and an assist, four shots on goal, and a game-high six hits in 20:20 of ice time.

“Amazing. He was fantastic,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “He scored a huge goal and then that line was on fire. The last thing you want is him with the puck on the stick in the slot.”

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Although the Panthers bemoaned their start, which left them in a 3-0 hole at 5:00 of the second period, they focused as much on their play in the second and third period that nearly erased that deficit, starting with Tkachuk’s snap shot at 6:53 of the second, his first goal since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers on May 22.

They focused on what they did well and what they did right, with the understanding that they cannot have a third straight game in which they put themselves behind early. They focused on the end, but in the next two days they will also have to solve the beginning.

“Yeah, I think so,” Bennett said. “We started to relax a little bit and just get back to playing our game. I think we were gripping the sticks a little tight. We wanted it a little too bad tonight.”

And even though they didn’t get it, even though they will need to try again Friday, they were equanimous after Game 5. They were composed.

“I’m not pumping tires. I’m not rubbing backs,” Maurice said. “I don’t think we need that at all. Everybody feels probably exactly the way I do right now. I’m not feeling deflated. Neither is the hockey team. They’re not feeling deflated. A little grumpy.”

As Maurice said, they’re still in the position they were in after Game 3 and after Game 4. They need to win one more game.

One single game.

“Yeah, it’s hard,” Maurice said about finding their game and falling short. “But I don’t feel deflated. How do I explain this to you? At the start of every series, we talk about what we want our Game 7 to look like. Nothing's changed for us. We didn't get the result that we wanted. We were no good the game before (an 8-1 loss in Game 4). We were pretty darn good here tonight. That's how we're going north.”

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