LAS VEGAS – Unable to change momentum in this lopsided Stanley Cup Final when he has the puck, Matthew Tkachuk decided to make an impact without it.
Hopping off the bench in the second period of an out-of-reach Game 2 and seeing puck carrier Jack Eichel cutting up centre ice with his head down, Tkachuk planted his feet, lowered his shoulder and crunched the Vegas Golden Knights’ top centre so hard and clean, Eichel’s helmet popped off, his right leg buckled, and he rushed painfully to the dressing room.
“It doesn’t matter who you are. You shouldn’t be going through the middle with your head down. You’re gonna get hit,” Tkachuk said, unapologetic. “It’s nothing. It’s not a big deal. He’s a really good player, and really good players can get hit too.”
Except: It is a big deal.
Because Eichel, surprisingly, returned for the third period and, on his very first post-hit shift went hard on the forecheck and set up linemate Jonathan Marchessault for another goal.
“It’s a physical game. You’re going to get hit sometimes,” Eichel said. “It was definitely a big collision. I got my wits back about me and realized I was fine, and just kind of moved on.”
And because Eichel has kicked off this final with back-to-back two-assist games and now has racked up the third-most points ever by a first-timer to the playoffs (22).
And because the Golden Knights just cruised past Tkachuk’s Florida Panthers in a 7-2 romp, have tripled up their overwhelmed opponent by a total score of 12-4, and the gulf between the sides’ best players is widening by the minute.
Eichel responded to the collision by impacting the scoreboard. Tkachuk responded by taking two 10-minute misconducts, increasing his series PIM total to 36, and potting a meaningless goal in garbage time.
Let’s be clear: The hit was as clean as it was mean.
Eichel, who toe-picked his way to vulnerability, and Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t dispute it.
“It’s OK to get hit. This is part of the journey,” Cassidy said. “It hurts to win, and it’s not supposed to be easy. So, good for him.
“Great to see him come back. Not only does it give us juice, but sometimes it can take away juice from the other team if they see a guy come back.”
The Panthers look juice-less.
They wouldn’t be the first group of men to fly home discombobulated after four nights in Vegas, and they now face the unenviable task of swiping four of five from hockey’s most organized, disciplined and dialed-in team.
We could point to Sam Bennett’s 10-game goal drought or Brandon Montour’s 10-game point drought or Radko Gudas’s questionable status for Game 3 and beyond.
But the two pillars of Florida’s remarkable run to Round 4, Tkachuk and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, are crumbling.
Bobrovsky has allowed eight goals on 46 shots through four and a half periods of work, is getting screened by his own defencemen, and got chased so swiftly Monday that coach Paul Maurice said he’d use two days to decide whether to start him in Game 3.
As for Tkachuk, his last great appearance on TNT was on the NBA panel.
He has taken three misconducts, committed a costly giveaway in Game 1, and seems more preoccupied with trying to antagonize Adin Hill and Alex Pietrangelo than imposing his hockey skills on the Knights.
For the record, Tkachuk says he was “surprised” at the misconduct he was handed after the Eichel hit but deserved the second one for whacking Michael Amadio’s stick out of his hand after a stoppage in play.
He then fired a plastic rat a fan had tossed on the ice towards the Knights’ bench.
The question must be asked: Have Tkachuk and the Panthers lost the plot with their preoccupation with trying to stir up the nonsense?
“I don’t think so. I just think we’re a big, physical team,” Tkachuk said. “That’s how we have played the last second half of the year and been successful. I just don’t think there’s teams that play as physical as we do. So, maybe you guys think that a little bit too much. But at the end of the day, it’s just how we play.
“If we were playing physical and [ahead] in the game, you guys would be like, that’s the recipe for success. So, we’re just sticking with our game.”
Eichel is sticking with his game, too, which means setting up his wingers, contributing to a suddenly hot Vegas power-play, and breaking up plays in the D-zone.
“I mean, he’s unbelievable right?” Marchessault said.
“It’s not just with the puck. It’s without the puck, the way he works everywhere on the ice. He’s one of those guys that makes everyone look better. He gets a massive hit there, goes into the locker room, first shift back in the third period, he gets on the forecheck, on the body, wins his battle, finds me. I mean, that’s the resiliency we have in that locker room, and it starts with your top guys and goes right through the lineup.”
Starts with your top guys.
Florida’s top guys are either MIA, off the rails, or threatening to turn into pumpkins.
If they don’t rein in the nonsense and deliver Thursday at home, they too will soon be caught with their heads down at centre ice — in the handshake line.
“We do have to tweak a few things,” Tkachuk admitted.
“They’re halfway there, and hopefully they’re thinking about that a little bit as they’re coming to Florida. I think that could work in our favour. But we definitely have to prepare, give everything in this one game here, and just get a little bit of momentum back.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• That Cassidy trusts his fourth line of William Carrier–Nicolas Roy–Keegan Kolesar to shut down the Nick Cousins–Sam Bennett–Tkachuk line tells you all you need to know about the depth of the Golden Knights.
Wanna talk depth?
“It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas and why we’re ahead against Florida,” Cassidy said. “I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”
• Very cool to see Buffalo captain Kyle Okposo in town to support ex-Sabres Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
• Speaking of former Sabres, because Radko Gudas got banged up in Game 1, Maurice surprised by dressing an 11-and-7 lineup, inserting seldom-used defenceman Casey Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald’s appearance marked his first in 43 days. He skated just 8:08 in a Round 1 loss to Bruins. That Fitzgerald, who played limited minutes in just 27 games this season, is Florida’s next man up speaks volumes about the contrast in defensive depth between the two teams.
Gudas was taken out of the game — on his 33rd birthday, no less — by a solid reverse hit by Ivan Barbashev. No update was given on his health.
• Connor Bedard got jokes.
• The piping-hot Jonathan Marchessault has 10 goals in his past nine games and might just shoot his way to a Conn Smythe Trophy.
“I have to face his shot every day. It’s unbelievable,” Hill said. “When he gets in tight, he’s probably one of the hardest guys in the league to stop. There’s a reason why he’s scoring.”