EDMONTON – The play of Matthew Tkachuk’s that Paul Maurice has watched over and over isn’t the one you’d think. It isn’t the diving, sliding, reaching save that Tkachuk made with 21 seconds remaining in the Florida Panthers’ Game 5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the one where his stick reached out and swiped the puck away from the goal line at the very last second. 

No, it’s his sublime backcheck of Connor McDavid from Game 2. With six minutes remaining in a game the Panthers led by two goals, Tkachuk caught up to McDavid on a breakaway chance, getting his stick in, disrupting McDavid just enough that he couldn’t get a clean shot in on Sergei Bobrovsky

He didn’t score. 

“He was outstanding [in Game 5], but the clip that I still don’t understand why I haven’t seen more than once is the backcheck on McDavid when he reaches between his legs and uses his stick and knocks it off on that rush,” the Panthers coach said. “I think the only time I saw that was on the video. 

“How would you not show that 5,000 times? I did. That’s training camp video. I told him when we’re doing our laps next year and we’re bagging him at the end of practice and he’s at the end, we’ve seen him catch that guy. We know how fast he is now.”

But that, of course, is not for months. Between now and training camp is at least one more game, a game that the Panthers very much hope they can win, with a chance to end the season and claim the Stanley Cup on the line in Game 6 on Friday at Rogers Place (8 p.m. ET; CBC, TVAS, SN, ESPN+, ABC). 

The Panthers, who have not been able to close out the series in the past two games, lead the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final 3-2 over the Oilers. 

And if the Panthers are able to win, it’s very likely that Tkachuk will play a major role. 

The forward was, perhaps, the primary reason why the Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final last season, a series they lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights, after an unexpected run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This season, the force of nature has been quieter, with fewer highlight-reel moments on the ice and less bluster at the press conferences after, though he has almost matched the 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 20 games he scored last season, with 22 (six goals, 16 assists) in 22 games this year. 

But Tkachuk remains absolutely crucial to the Panthers’ hopes and, in a positive sign for Florida, made his biggest overall impression in Game 5, elevating his game to match the moment. 

He scored in Game 5, his first goal since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, a drought that had reached nine games, and added an assist and seven hits. But he also seemed to be everywhere. 

“He’s one of our leaders,” Evan Rodrigues said. “When your leaders are leading, everyone follows behind. I think it was big for him to get a goal there and probably the best game he’s had this series. 

“I think when he’s at his best, he’s just a force. He’s unstoppable, he’s big, he wants the puck, he wants contact when he has the puck. He’s so good at protecting it. When he’s getting to the dirty areas, he’s one of the best in the League at it. It’s one of his biggest skill sets. I think it’s why he’s been such a good playoff performer. If he brings that mentality, he’ll continue to have that success.”

And so will the Panthers. 

It’s an impact that Tkachuk wasn’t able to make at this point in the playoffs last season, when his sternum was broken on a hit by Keegan Kolesar in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. He suited up in Game 4, with help getting dressed from brother Brady Tkachuk, but played sparingly. And when Game 5 came around, he was out. 

Which was what made this Game 5 such a marked difference. 

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” forward Ryan Lomberg said. “He’s one of our main leaders, so when guys like that lead by example, everybody else is well on board because they’re leading the way.”

He extended himself, elevated his game, pushed the Panthers as much as he could. 

“I just want to elevate because I want to help my team. I want to help this team win,” Tkachuk said. “That’s what everybody thinks right now. It’s go out there, do whatever you can, just win that one game. We have that mindset. Edmonton has that mindset. 

“I think that’s why both teams are in the position they’re in right now is because we both have that. You don’t really think about the series. You don’t try to get ahead of yourself. You don’t reflect on mistakes made in previous games. You just attack each day and each game like it’s a completely new one. 

“It doesn’t matter what I did or what we did last game. It’s a fresh day tomorrow, it’s a fresh game day. We’re very excited. … Stanley Cup Finals, it doesn’t get better than this.”

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