Russo: Matthew Tkachuk’s legend keeps growing with dramatic series clincher for Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk gets the competitive drive, the hands and the pain in the arse persona right from his pops. That’s not lost on him, and he’s proud to be Keith Tkachuk’s son.

But the 25-year-old Panthers star has put Dad in a timeout.

Ever since he called the Panthers “soft” on a Toronto radio station in March, Keith Tkachuk is not permitted to speak of his son nor the team he plays for in any public forum.

Now, he can still come to the games and drink a few cold beers from the stands. He can still establish residency in Matthew’s Broward County home and put his feet up like he owns the place like he’s Johnny Drama.

But when it comes to doing media, that’s a no-go for Walt.

“I feel like a teenager getting punished by my parents,” Papa Tkachuk, the 538-goal scorer in the NHL, told The Athletic hours before his boy hoisted the Panthers into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.

Yep, Keith’s boy did it again.

We all know by now that Matthew Tkachuk has a gift for the dramatic, but this is getting ridiculous.

We saw his heroics throughout the Boston series. We saw the overtime winner in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final coming mercifully 13 seconds before what would have been a fifth overtime. We saw his Game 2 overtime winner and his assist on the lone goal — Sam Reinhart’s winner — in Game 3.

So did any of us have any doubt when Anthony Duclair drew that penalty in the last minute of regulation in a tie game Wednesday night that not only would the Panthers come through to complete the sweep and dispatch the Hurricanes, but it would be Tkachuk who would do the deed?

“Who else, right? Who else? Who else?” said Aaron Ekblad, the ninth-year Panthers defenseman who not long after celebrating by rubbing beards with Marc Staal welled up in the postgame locker room when he realized how close he is to fulfilling his hockey dream. “It’s unexplainable what Matthew’s brought to this team throughout the season. His intensity, from the words he says, to his actions on the ice, it’s amazing.”

There have been so many tremendous star athletes over the years in South Florida, from Dan Marino and Jason Taylor on the Dolphins to Shaq, LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning on the Heat.

But when it comes to the Panthers, there have been a lot of great players but precious few stars since they entered the league in 1993.

Pavel Bure scored 58 and 59 goals in a clutch-and-grab era but made the playoffs just once wearing Panthers red and didn’t win a playoff game.

Tkachuk has not only made the playoffs in his first year of a monster $9.5 million a year, eight-year deal, but the legend of Chucky is also growing at unparalleled heights.

His latest flair for the dramatic came with less than five seconds left in regulation when captain Sasha Barkov executed a little fake, froze the D and fed Tkachuk atop the goalmouth. Almost like everything stopped, Tkachuk had the time and space to patiently take the puck across and beat Freddie Andersen and send 20,000 Panthers fans inside a rabid FLA Live Arena into a rat-throwing frenzy. It matched the latest series-clinching goal in regulation in NHL history.

Sure, the NHL inspected to make sure Sam Bennett didn’t interfere with the goaltender, but after a quick review, the Panthers’ trip to the fourth round was seconds away from being cinched.

In Raleigh, Tkachuk sprinted toward the exit after both his OT tallies. This time, he sprinted toward the blue line and slid on two knees.

“I couldn’t catch him,” Barkov said.

How can Tkachuk’s masterful postseason and knack for the big goal be explained?

Paul Maurice, who’s never had a loss for words, says, “I can’t figure that guy out.”

“He’s on the stage now with the overtime winners, all of that,” Florida’s coach said. “He used to do that to us in Winnipeg. Pain in the ass. … That bastard would score the same way, … two minutes left on the clock after agitating the entire bench. He’s is a gifted, gifted man.”

Eric Staal has played against Tkachuk for years.

To be frank, he hated playing against him because he can drive an opponent crazy.

In Florida, Staal said, “It’s so funny. He’s not what I thought he was. Coming here and meeting him, he’s exceeded that by so much more. It’s been a treat.”

Asked to expand, Staal laughed: “Everyone’s played him. He’s a prick. He’s chewing on that mouthguard, he’s yapping away. But there’s an old-school soul in there that comes from his dad and family. Just being around the game, he’s all the things you want.”

And Staal doesn’t expect Tkachuk to slow down.

Not with Vegas or Dallas — OK, probably Vegas, which has a 3-0 lead out west, in the way of hoisting something his dad never got to lift during his tremendous career.

Tkachuk just seems built for these moments. He has a different persona off the ice, and to a man, Panthers players keep volunteering that a big reason Florida plays with such attitude and confidence on the ice is because of its fearless leader.

“Unreal addition,” Barkov said. “Everyone sees what he’s doing on the ice, but off ice, it’s been eye-opening how great a person he is and how he breathes hockey and everything around it every day.”

Tkachuk’s the least, let’s call it, “soft” player on a team that suddenly brings the grit and tenacity nightly.

And the Panthers seem to have been motivated by Papa Tkachuk’s “soft” jab.

The Panthers, who had to scratch and claw to get into the playoffs and only did because the Chicago Blackhawks, on the second night of a back-to-back, beat Pittsburgh in Game 81, won six in a row after Keith Tkachuk’s comments made headlines and even Barkov joked that the Panthers were only there Wednesday night because of those inspiring, eye-opening comments.

Nevertheless, Matthew said, “He’s still in a timeout till, hopefully, … for a few more weeks.

Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t even born the first and last time the Panthers made it to the Final. But those precious Panthers — led by a bunch of castoffs named Beezer, Mell, Screwy, Fitzy and Jovo — have long been embedded into the hearts of every South Florida adult who’s a hockey fanatic.

But Tkachuk and this group of Cats are creating new memories. They suddenly are four wins away from winning it all.

“Being in it with the guys and seeing the belief and seeing just the calmness to us is really something special,” Tkachuk said. “Like nothing rattles us. I mean, (Jesper Fast) scores with three minutes left. You’d think that it’d be, ‘Uh-oh, here we go. Like what’s gonna happen?’ But it’s, like, the opposite. It’s so fun to be around and just so fun being at the rink right now.

“We’ve got a few weeks left of this and it’s gonna be the best few weeks of our lives hopefully.”

Panthers fans sure deserve this.

Long the butt of jokes because of the thousands of empty seats in the palatial arena on the edge of the Everglades, the arena is filled again with red-shirt-wearing, towel-waving hockey lovers having a blast rooting on this atypical bottom seed that has rolled through Boston, Toronto and Carolina — three of the top-four teams in the NHL this season.

The cynics will call them bandwagon jumpers, but the Panthers are finally giving South Florida a reason to hop aboard again.

Until last year when the Panthers advanced past the Capitals into the second round, they had not won a playoff series since that unexpected 1995-96 run to the Final.

Imagine that.

A full generation had never seen the Panthers win and win consistently. From birth to graduating college, young adults didn’t see a single playoff series victory.

They had seen unstable ownership in years past, many different GMs, somehow trading the No. 1 pick three different times, the coming and going of so many coaches and coaching staffs, human resources had to be like, “Again,” every time they had to remove a name from the payroll system.

That’s why it was so cool to see Barkov, Tkachuk and the rest of the Panthers grab that Prince of Wales Trophy on Wednesday night and show it off to their fans.

“We’re the type of team, the last thing that we’re going to do is be superstitious about not touching it or anything,” Tkachuk said. “Nobody said we were gonna make the playoffs, so I don’t know. I think it’s pretty cool to touch it and carry it around and take pictures with it. Like, we earned that thing and definitely didn’t do it the easy way.

“I feel like if you’re blocking shots, taking hits and doing whatever it takes to win a trophy like that, you might as well enjoy it.”

(Photo: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)