SUNRISE — It was hard to find a moment when Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t smiling during the NHL All-Star Weekend. He had a huge grin on his face waiting to be introduced to an increasingly noisy crowd anticipating his name before the Atlantic Division’s first game and, as you’d expect, it was still there three hours later when his crew won the event and he was named MVP.
It’s also impossible to miss the emotions Tkachuk stirs among the Florida Panthers backers. Obviously the hometown guys are always going to get a pop, but this weekend served to highlight the fact the bond between this player — who landed just last summer from the Calgary Flames in a blockbuster trade and is barely halfway through his first year in Sunrise — and these fans has already taken hold.
“The fans love him,” Brady Tkachuk said of his brother and linemate for a day. “I think it’s just, what you see is what you get with him. He’s not [going to hide his] personality, I think that’s what fans love about him; he is who he is.”
The good vibes were still spilling off Matthew and Aleksander Barkov — the third member of the line with Brady — after the game when they sauntered into the interview room.
Naturally, a lot of questions revolved around the fact this was actually the first time Matthew and Brady — at any level — had suited up as linemates. Tkachuk confirmed that was very cool, but wanted to acknowledge the role the Panthers captain played on the line.
“For him to be able to deal with Brady and I, he should have won MVP,” Tkachuk chirped.
Of course, you could make a credible case that another Atlantic player, Dylan Larkin, actually deserved the MVP honours after totalling five goals (to Tkachuk’s four) following his team’s 10-6 semifinal win over the Metropolitan Division and the 7-5 victory over the Central Division in the final. That game was actually 4-1 with about half a 10-minute period to go before the guys went crazy and tortured Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy with seven goals in the final 2:46 of play.
But in front of this FLA Live Arena crowd, with the Tkachuk brothers at the centre of so much activity over the course of the festivities, it was going to be hard not to hand the prize of a new Honda over to a guy who has instantly endeared himself to the Panthers faithful.
“It was actually fun, I wasn’t expecting that,” Barkov joked about playing with Matthew and Brady, cracking that he never even touched the puck in the offensive zone. “Two great guys, off the ice especially.”
Enjoyable as the weekend was, both Barkov and Tkachuk acknowledged playing the role of host can take it out of you. Matthew said the legs were burning a bit by the final period of the second game and, surely, that had at least something to do with teams putting at least a decent amount of effort into trying to win their games. I mean, you’re here, right, why not dig in a little?
After his side’s loss to the Atlantic, Metro bench boss Rod Brind’Amour remarked on what he saw. “Both teams played really hard,” he said, before catching himself. “Well, really hard [might be overstating it]. Hard. And made it entertaining.”
So much so that Sidney Crosby, when asked what might improve All-Star Weekend, suggested making Day 1 more like Day 2 could be a step in the right direction.
Whereas historically the All-Star Skills may have generated more interest than the game itself, with the three-on-three, two-period format seeming to coax a little something out of the players, the three mini-games might now outshine a skills competition that has gotten a bit bloated.
“Maybe just shorten up the skills,” Crosby said. “It’s fun seeing guys do their thing and some of the skill sets they have, but if we could get that paced to where the three-on-three has gotten over time — I think that’s gotten better and better — maybe just have that a little more intense in the way it goes, but that’s a little easier said than done with everything that goes into it.”
Matthew Tkachuk’s suggestion to improve things after he lost a Friday-night competition to Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Ovechkin’s young son? “Probably just a better judge in the breakaway challenge,” he quipped.
Indeed, 24 hours after Ovi, Sid and young Sergei Ovechkin stole the show with their 3-on-0 on retired Panthers legend Roberto Luongo that culminated in Ovi Jr. sliding one in over the line, the longtime rivals were at it again, combing for a pair or sweet goals as Metro linemates.
Crosby wound up being the triggerman on both tallies as the guy who’s almost certain to end up with more goals than anybody in NHL history when he retires just kept returning passes to No. 87.
“I didn’t expect to get it back a couple of those times,” Crosby said with a chuckle. “I was thinking I did my job, giving it to him, I thought he was just going to finish it. But he was kind enough to send a couple back.”
Say what you want about the All-Star Game, it does offer up things you’re not going to get anywhere else; Sid and Ovi combing for snipes; Montreal Canadien Nick Suzuki scoring two goals with first assists from a Toronto Maple Leaf (Mitch Marner) and a Boston Bruin (David Pastrnak); Rasmus Dahlin swooping in on a penalty shot and putting forth a behind-the-legs attempt that Hellebuyck managed to brush aside with a blocker.
And, of course, the opportunity for a pair of brothers born just under three years apart to hook up in front of hordes of friends, family and fans to put on a show everybody gobbled up.
“Hopefully we can play more together,” Brady said. “I had so much fun. There was no bickering today.”