Tkachuk follows up All-Star MVP with 5 points as Florida routs Tampa. And Barkov update

Matthew Tkachuk was right back on the ice Sunday, a day after winning MVP of the 2023 NHL All-Star Game at the end of a busy week as the league’s unofficial ambassador for its week-long Broward County spectacular. His Florida Panthers, sitting three points out of postseason position at the All-Star break, had too much work to do. There was no time for a day off.

A day later, he didn’t look like an All-Star in need of any time to refresh. Two days after he scored seven points in the NHL All-Star Game, Tkachuk was once again the best player on the ice Monday in Sunrise and powered his team to a potentially pivotal 7-1 rout of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I’m tired now,” the star right wing said with a smile.

Tkachuk assisted on the Panthers’ first two goals, scored a dazzling second-period goal when he swatted a bouncing puck out of the air and past All-Star goaltender Andrei Vasiveskiy, and added another goal and assist in the third. Florida never trailed in one of its most complete performances of an often frustrating season.

The Panthers (25-22-6) outshot the Lightning, 49-32, and got 32 saves from star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, while also shutting out Tampa Bay (32-15-1) on the power play despite playing most of the second half without All-Star center Aleksander Barkov.

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Even when Barkov missed the final 28:04 after getting hit by a puck on his hand while blocking a shot, Florida was able to build on a 3-1 lead, going up 4-1 at the second intermission and pulling away in the third.

Paul Maurice doesn’t expect Barkov to miss extended time, although he declined to say whether the captain already had an X-ray done.

“We don’t think this is going to be long term,” the coach said, adding Barkov likely won’t practice Tuesday. “Tomorrow we’ll have a better idea.”

The win, Florida’s ninth in 15 games, has the Panthers within a point of the Eastern Conference’s second and final wild card for the first time in more than two months, with 29 games to go. It was Florida’s most lopsided win of the season and the seven goals matched the Panthers’ season high, prompting the crowd at FLA Live Arena to chant “We want 10!” throughout the third period, as it so often did last season.

Florida began its 30-game sprint to the regular-season finish line — and, it hopes, the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs — with the type of litmus-test showdown it can use to flip its postseason fortunes. The Panthers, slight underdogs even at home against a perennial Stanley Cup contender, have spent the last few years chasing the Lightning’s success, losing playoff series to the in-state rival in back-to-back years and now sitting far behind Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division’s standings.

Florida also believes the gap isn’t quite as big as the standings suggest. The Panthers have now secured points in 11 of 15, and scored back-to-back wins against the Cup-contending Boston Bruins and Lightning, albeit separated by more than week because of the All-Star Game.

Their top-end talent, as evidenced by the 11 combined points from Barkov and Tkachuk on Saturday, can still stack up with just about any roster in the league and their stars outmatched Tampa Bay’s to start the second half.

“That’s a big game against a rival, but we put ourselves in a position where we’re not necessarily fighting against them,” Tkachuk said, “but ... roads lead through Tampa to ultimately win it all.”

After an understandably disjointed first few minutes, both teams settled in for some back-and-forth play. In the first period, Florida fired 15 shots at Vasilevskiy and the Lightning peppered Bobrovsky with 10. The difference in the first was one patient pass Tkachuk, who held the puck as he approached the goal to draw Vasilevskiy to the left, then slid a pass across the ice to left wing Carter Verhaeghe for a one-timer into an open net and a 1-0 lead.

In the second period, the 25-year-old forward put the Panthers up 2-0 when he got the puck behind the net, saw Tampa Bay lost track of Sam Bennett and made the simple pass to his center for a 4-on-4 goal. After All-Star right wing Nikita Kucherov answered with a rocket from the point, Tkachuk put together his most spectacular highlight of the night.

Right as a power play ended, Verhaeghe led one last push into the offensive zone with numbers in Florida’s favor, so he tossed a shot at Vasilevskiy and hoped something would happen. Tkachuk, perched on the right doorstep, tracked the puck as it bounced off the star goalie, controlled it in midair and then, before it even touched the ice, knocked it into the goal to push the Panthers’ lead back to 3-1 with 11:20 left in the period.

Star defenseman Brandon Montour, an All-Star snub, created another goal before the end of the period when center Eetu Luostarinen deflected his point shot past Vasilevskiy and Florida cruised to victory, even with Barkov sidelined. Center Eric Staal, filling in for Barkov on the top line, scored with 17:07 left when he intercepted a pass by Vasilevskiy and got to shoot on an open net, then Tkachuk added one more assist when he set up Verhaeghe and capped the win with a power-play deflection goal with 5:25 remaining.

“We needed this win. I feel like that can continue to propel us forward for the rest of this stretch drive,” Staal said. “This is a fun time of year. It’s the best time to play hockey.”