Maurice tightlipped about Tkachuk but Panthers star expected for crucial Game 5

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice talks about drawing on past experiences and focusing on one game at a time as they're on the brink of elimination against the Vegas Golden Knights.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The “situational” coaching of Matthew Tkachuk has already begun. Paul Maurice just hopes it can continue when the Florida Panthers try to extend their season on Tuesday.

The coach offered no injury update Sunday on Tkachuk, a Conn Smythe Trophy favourite if the Panthers somehow overcome their 3-1 deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.

Tkachuk is believed to have been injured – or exacerbated an existing medical condition – when he was run over by Vegas winger Keegan Kolesar early in Game 3 on Thursday. With the Panthers chasing the series and Game 4 on Saturday, Maurice sent Tkachuk out for only four shifts in the third period.

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The winger’s shift times on the first three were 18 seconds, 28 seconds and 51 seconds, before Tkachuk logged the final 2:26 as the Panthers lost 3-2. He had a glorious scoring chance in the final seconds, but failed to lift his goalmouth shot over the left pad of Knights netminder Adin Hill.

It was the second straight game in which Tkachuk failed to register a hit although he took his fourth misconduct penalty in four games after it was over for, well, doing Matthew Tkachuk things.

“Just situational, right?” Maurice said when asked on a Zoom call with reporters how he might deploy a diminished player. “There are players that will play just power play. There’s guys that will stay on for offensive-zone draws. There’s different styles of centre and winger that you can play with to kind of put them in a position to be good at what they can be good at.”

Neither Maurice nor Tkachuk, who spoke to the media Saturday night, made any predictions about his availability Tuesday. But he is expected to play Game 5, as will Vegas centre Jack Eichel, who was rocked by Tkachuk in Monday’s Game 2 and took a deflected puck to the head on Saturday.

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Sunday is a travel day for the teams, which have practices scheduled for Monday in Las Vegas.

The Golden Knights are trying to win their first Stanley Cup just six seasons after entering the National Hockey League. Six players remain from the inaugural Vegas roster and could be the first to win a Cup with the team that claimed them in an expansion draft since Lee Fogolin did it with the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.

“To get your name on the Cup is the ultimate reward,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday in his media availability. “We’re not there yet. But before you can get to 16 wins, you’ve got to get to 15 and we did, so we’re one away. We understand that and that’s the rewarding part. If you’re able to do it — I think (Jonathan) Marchessault said it —  you’re considered a winner forever. You’ve won. That would be the ultimate reward for me is to be part of a team that won as a team and played as a team.”

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One of the original Knights, Marchessault is a leading Conn Smythe candidate along with Eichel, Hill and Mark Stone.

Tkachuk and Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky drove the underdog Panthers to this point.

“There’s an advantage sometimes to the team that’s down 3-1 in terms of the freedom mentally that it can play with,” Maurice said. “At the same time, you’re down 3-1 for a reason, so clearly the other team has been good. But we have some experience with this and we’ll draw on it.”

Florida rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round to stun the Presidents Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in seven games. But Tkachuk was at full-strength back then. He is at something considerably less than that now.

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