SUNRISE, Fla. — The Stanley Cup playoffs can be excruciating. The tension and the pressure are unrelenting, and your mind is unable to wander freely for up to two months at a time. The physical demands are unfathomable, your battered body crying out for sleep that it won’t let you have. It’s a battle of attrition and a test of will. Just how badly do you want your name on that silver chalice? Just how much are you willing to endure?
That’s playoff hockey. Pain. Suffering. Sacrifice. An exquisite torment.
So what is Matthew Tkachuk’s problem?
Everywhere you look in these playoffs, the Florida Panthers star is smiling. He’s smiling in the team photos on the scoreboard, where everyone’s supposed to look all mean and scowly. He’s smiling in the middle of post-whistle scrums, laughing off facewashes and grinning through the cross-checks he gives and takes. He’s smiling during his scrums with reporters. And he’s sure as heck smiling when he’s darting out the door, orchestrating his now-patented “Bus in 10” celebration after scoring overtime winners.
This guy’s out here enjoying himself. During the playoffs! Is that even allowed? Maybe everyone was right when they tried to paint him as the “villain” of these playoffs. How dare he.
“Why play if you can’t have fun?” he said before Monday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final. “We’re enjoying each and every minute of it. The banter in the locker room before overtime, the pregame skate, just being able to be together and continue to be together a month and change after some teams have been out — we’re just having such a great time right now, just having fun each and every day at the rink.”
No, no, no, no. That’s not how this works, sir. You’re supposed to be talking in military cliches and occasionally wincing dramatically and using “grind” nine times in a five-minute scrum, not “fun.” This is war. This is history. This is legacy. Man, hockey isn’t some kind of game.
But to watch these Florida Panthers merrily skip through this postseason, you’d think this stuff was easy. They’re sure starting to make it look that way. They won three straight elimination games to knock off the best regular-season team in NHL history, the Boston Bruins. They sent the Maple Leafs into a new era with a gentleman’s sweep. And now they’re one win from their first Stanley Cup Final since 1996 after a harrowing 1-0 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, one they pulled off mostly without their captain and No. 1 center, Aleksander Barkov, who left the game in the first period with a lower-body injury.
“He’s at a bar mitzvah,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice joked. Joked! About an injury to his star player! In the playoffs! Can he do that? Is that suspendable?
Once again, there was Tkachuk, smiling away. There was Radko Gudas, slyly straightening his handlebar mustache every time a new camera descended upon his locker stall. There were the Panthers, hooting and hollering, their cheers echoing through the bowels of FLA Live Arena after yet another stomach-turning nail-biter — their seventh straight one-goal game. There were 19,873 fans, riding the ridiculous high of watching their Miami Heat and Florida Panthers — a pair of bottom-seeded afterthoughts — alternate conference-final wins for six straight nights, both teams feeding off each other, wearing each other’s gear at practices, sending South Florida into a tizzy.
Turns out winning is fun. Chasing a lifelong dream is fun. Playing sports with your buddies is fun.
Radko Gudas (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
Apparently, Paul Maurice knew. He immediately got the sense this team was a little different, a little lighter and looser than most, during his summer phone calls with players when he first got the job. It was just something about the way they talked about the team, the way they talked about their teammates. And even at their lowest points this season, when the playoffs seemed farthest away, they never let the frustration seep into their souls. A well-timed Ryan Lomberg crack or a Tkachuk chirp could ease the tension even in a quadruple-overtime playoff road game.
“When you get to the final four, everybody has a great room, everybody loves each other, everything’s cool, right?” Maurice said. “Everyone’s having a great time. But I would say that was also true in our November and December. That was very hard here. They still got along and they still found a way to have fun. We just found a way to play really hard and have fun at the same time. So you’re allowed to enjoy the moment.”
Down the hallway a bit at FLA Live Arena, before and after Game 3, the Carolina Hurricanes were adhering to the long-established normals of hockey society: They looked miserable. That’s the difference a few bounces make —it’s easy to be having a blast when you’re up 3-0 in a series, it’s unbecoming to be chipper and chirping when you’re down 3-0. Three games. Three one-goal losses. Nothing to smile about there.
The Hurricanes have been very serious all series. Rod Brind’Amour’s media sessions have been getting shorter and shorter, because there are only so many ways to say, “We can’t score on Sergei Bobrovsky and it’s really annoying.” Carolina was the better team for large swaths of the first three games of this series, and it has nothing to show for it. That’s partly because the Hurricanes — as good as they are, as deep as they are, as structured and disciplined as they are — just don’t have a lot of finishers on their roster, especially without the injured Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov. But it’s mostly because Bobrovsky is on the heater of a lifetime, with 132 saves on 135 shots this series.
There’s nothing fun about that.
Tkachuk said Monday the playoffs are like “Groundhog Day,” but he meant that as a good thing — you get to see your buddies and play hockey day after day after day. But much of that movie was about the personal hell Bill Murray’s character was in, forced to relive the same miserable day over and over and over until he was able to change his fate. Carolina’s stuck in a time loop it can’t get out of — shoot on Bob, get stopped by Bob, repeat.
“You hate losing for sure,” Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teravainen said. “The games have been close. Could have gone either way. It’s frustrating.”
If the Panthers were down 3-0, would they be as loose and free-and-easy as they are right now? Would they still be cracking jokes and relishing their time together at the rink? We might never know, because Bobrovsky might never give up a goal again. But things were bleak at Christmas, too, when the Panthers, coming off a President’s Trophy season, were under .500. That’s when Maurice knew he had something special here, something different.
One-goal game? Must-win situation? Injured superstar? Never mind fazing these guys, nothing even stresses them out.
“We’re enjoying it,” said Gudas, who called Barkov “the best player in the world.” “It’s always fun to play a tight game. After Christmas, we had to pretty much play those games since January. Nothing new for us really.”
It’s something new for hockey, though. This is a team that wouldn’t have even made the playoffs had the Pittsburgh Penguins not somehow lost to the tanking Chicago Blackhawks —in Pittsburgh, no less — in a must-win game in the final week of the season. And here they are, on the verge of knocking off their third straight perennial power.
And they’re doing it with a smile on their faces.
“How could you possibly work your whole life to get to a place that you didn’t enjoy being in?” Maurice said. “What the hell was the point of that?”
(Top photo of Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky: Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images)