The Florida Panthers traded for Matthew Tkachuk in the offseason to try to reach another level. Right now, they just need him to help carry them into the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.
On Thursday, he did his part with three goals — his second hat trick of the year, with an empty-net goal to finish it off — and four points, and the Panthers kept their postseason hopes afloat with a 5-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens in Quebec.
The superstar right wing now has 100 points this season. It’s the second 100-point season in franchise history after star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, whom Florida traded for Tkachuk last year, set a team record with 115 last season.
The win, the Panthers’ second in as many nights, lets Florida keep pace with the Penguins, who also beat the Predators, 2-0, on Thursday. The Panthers trail Pittsburgh by one point with six games left in their regular season — one fewer than the Penguins have remaining.
It was also a come-from-behind win for the second straight night in Canada. On Wednesday, Florida forced overtime in the last minute, then beat the Maple Leafs in the extra session to snap a four-game losing streak. On Thursday, the Panthers went down 1-0 to the last-place Canadiens in the first two minutes when goaltender Alex Lyon, starting his second straight game with star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky out with an illness, made an egregious error, and let a deflected centering past sneak between his leg and the right post.
Forward Anton Lundell answered less than three minutes later, though, and Florida went into the first intermission tied 1-1. From there, Tkachuk took over.
The All-Star winger already had one assist from when his shot created the rebound for Lundell’s early goal and scored his first goal on a power play, finishing off a perfect cycle and net-front feed from forward Sam Reinhart to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead with 16:01 left in the second period. Less than two minutes later, Tkachuk scored again, zipping a shot past Montreal goaltender Sam Montembault in transition to push Florida’s lead to 3-1 and deflate the Bell Centre crowd, which was hoping to see the Canadiens play spoiler as they own the Panthers’ first-round pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
Lundell, who didn’t have a point in March until he scored a goal Wednesday, added an insurance goal on a breakaway in the third period and Florida picked up another crucial win in Montreal.
The odds are still stacked against the Panthers, but this game was one they could not afford to lose. The Canadiens have the second worst record in the Eastern Conference and a loss — in one of Florida’s easiest games left — would have left the Panthers multiple games out of a postseason spot.
A few variables could tilt back in the Panthers’ favor from here, though. Florida doesn’t play again until Saturday, which could let Bobrovsky get healthy and back in net and maybe even center Sam Bennett, who hasn’t played since March 20, with Florida dropping 4 of 6 since he went down with an unspecified injury.