Matthew Tkachuk’s injury casts serious doubt on Panthers’ ability to sustain Cup hopes

SUNRISE — Matthew Tkachuk was in pain, and he was in so much pain he couldn’t play, in what were clearly the biggest moments in the biggest game of his hockey life.

Tkachuk was grimacing and grimacing and working like an upper body discomfort that likely started the moment he took a big hit in the previous game going deeper and deeper.

“It’s not going to come out now,” Tkachuk said afterwards, when asked for details.

Tkachuk rested a bit and rested a bit more in the third period, then jumped on the ice when the Florida goaltender was pulled and they needed his heroism once more.

And Tkachuk almost did too.

It took a stellar left-pad save by Vegas’ Adin Hill on Tkachuk as time expired to preserve a 3-2 win that once again brings the Panthers to the brink of elimination late Saturday night.

“We ran out of time,” Tkachuk said.

Florida edges Vegas 3-1 in Stanley Cup final

The Panthers lost because they fell to a 3-0 hole at home, when they had to do something other than fall to a 3-0 hole at home, already trailing 2 games to 1 in the final of the Stanley Cup.

“A few stupid plays,” defenseman Brandon Montour said of Florida’s defense.

The Vegas defense is so good.

They block shots. They never seem to be in a bad position. They knocked.

And they’re so damn structurally sound.

We can see why Vegas was favored and why barring another miraculous Bruins-like comeback, they’re going to win their first Stanley Cup and prevent Florida from doing the same.

Chandler Stephenson scored Vegas’ first two goals.

There was a bad change by the Panthers, including Aaron Ekblad.

Then Stephenson was too open in the split, beating Sergei Bobrovsky high glove.

Then William Karlsson made it 3-0 on a rebound and it looked like Florida was dead in the water again.

The return of the Florida Panthers is cut short

It took a circus goal from Montour — on a skate, then a peg and like a pinball into the Vegas goal — to bring the Panthers back to life.

It took a pass from Montour and a goal from Aleksander Barkov – his first in the series – to bring Florida improbably within striking distance of tying the series at 2.

It never happened.

Rats littered the ice and Tkachuk waved his stick and players pushed and shoved and collapsed on the ice, but none of that mattered. Because there was no time left for the returning Cats to return.

Vegas is the strongest team. Stronger overall defense. And deeper, especially with the injuries of Eetu Luostarinen and Tkachuk and even Anthony Duclair gone for a while in this one.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are a long, long, long battle of attrition. And it’s certainly possible that Florida is hitting a wall.

Vegas is a literal wall. And they are big and strong and tough and sometimes, it seems, impenetrable.

“You have to win four,” Barkov said. “All we can think about is winning one and bringing it back to Florida.”

Game 4: Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (7) grabs Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) in a postgame scrimmage.

Game 4: Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (7) grabs Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) in a postgame scrimmage.

But right now, it’s really hard to imagine any way Florida will force a sixth game, let alone a seventh.

That Tkachuk is in serious pain is something Florida probably can’t overcome.

Yes, there are two rest days ahead. But no one, including coach Paul Maurice, could promise anything about Tkachuk’s availability in the future.

“You want to be out there playing,” Tkachuk said.

The Florida Panthers looked well finished, until suddenly, again, they weren’t | Schad

After the game, Maurice said Florida would spend time telling stories about the level of energy the team brought to Boston when they trailed 3-1 in the first round and found a way to win.

Florida overcame a 3-1 deficit against Boston, but…

But it looks different.

The Panthers have been as good as any NHL team coming back in the past four years.

This season has been a remarkable journey. An unlikely race. A fun race. An inspiring race.

But it’s really hard to see it lasting much longer.

Joe Schad is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post. You can reach him and follow him on Instagram and Twitter @schadjoe. Sign up for Joe’s free weekly Dolphins Pulse newsletter. Help support our work by subscribing today

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida Panthers fall to Vegas Golden Knights, trail 3-1 in Stanley Cup Finals

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