SUNRISE, Fla. — In some alternate universe, Matthew Tkachuk is playing for the Hurricanes, agitating opponents and scoring big goals.
In this one, he was doing all that to the Hurricanes — and ending their season.
Tkachuk scored his second power play goal of the night with 4.9 seconds remaining, breaking a tie and giving the Panthers a 4-3 win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday, completing a sweep of the Hurricanes and advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.
“I don’t know what I feel right now,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook, with tears in his eyes, said after the loss. “Doesn’t feel real. I don’t know.”
Tkachuk’s goal came after an offensive zone tripping penalty was called on Jordan Staal with 57 seconds left in regulation. It was just the third time this postseason a penalty was called in the third period of a time game.
After Sam Reinhart hit the post with 10 seconds left in regulation, the puck bounced to Aleksander Barkov in the right circle. Barkov passed to Tkachuk behind the net, and the Panthers winger curled around the net, around traffic and shot past Frederik Andersen (20 saves) for his third game-winner of the series. He also had the primary assist on the lone goal on Monday’s 1-0 Florida win.
The NHL initiated a review for goaltender interference to check and see if Sam Bennett had interfered with Andersen, but the goal was upheld.
“The way it ended is tough, getting a penalty like that,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “That’s tough. You know, especially what was let go and then you drop that — that’s gonna sting. But not to take anything away from the other team because they played hard.
“But I think we take took a huge step this year. You know, coming this far, like I said, with what we were missing is pretty impressive.”
The Hurricanes were already without Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty and Ondrej Kase, and then lost Jaccob Slavin 85 seconds into the game following a thunderous hit from Florida’s Bennett. Stefan Noesen left the game in the first period, returned for some of the second, and then did not return, suffering an upper-body injury in one of his first shifts of the game, according to Brind’Amour.
Even shorthanded, Carolina found a way to fight back into the game.
The Panthers took the lead just 41 seconds into the game when Anthony Duclair scored on a rebound of his own shot. Then the hit on Slavin further knocked the Hurricanes back, and a flurry of penalties for each side resulted in Tkachuk scoring his first power play goal of the night at 10:23.
Shades of last year’s Game 7 loss to the Rangers, when New York defenseman Jacob Trouba knocked Seth Jarvis out of the game with a big hit and Carolina never recovered, lurked in the shadows.
Instead, the Hurricanes fought back.
Brady Skjei, who hit the post in Game 3, did so again. This time, the puck rested behind Sergei Bobrovsky (36 saves), and Paul Stastny shoveled it in the net for his fourth goal of the postseason and a 2-1 deficit at 13:03 of the opening period.
The Hurricanes then tied the game early in the second period, and Skjei was again the catalyst.
The Carolina defenseman’s point shot was blocked in the slot, but the puck went right to Teuvo Teravainen, who went across the grain and lifted a shot over Bobrovsky’s blocker at 2:51 of the middle frame.
“Do you expect anything less?” Martinook said of the team continuing to fight back.
Florida regained the lead just before the midway point of regulation. After Carolina turned the puck over in the Panthers’ zone and then failed to get a clear in its own end, Ryan Lomberg scored on some tic-tac-toe passing from Eric Staal and Colin White at 9:49 for a 3-2 Florida lead.
The Hurricanes responded again.
After Skjei missed a shot from the high slot, defenseman Jalen Chatfield pinched from the point and kept the puck in, pushing it behind the net to Martinook. Martinook collected it with his forehand and quickly backhanded a pass in front, and Jesper Fast scored his team-high sixth goal of the postseason — after totaling 10 goals in 80 games in the regular season — to knot the game 3-3 with 3:22 left in regulation.
The game seemed destined for overtime for the third time in the series, but the penalty to Staal gave the Panthers a late chance, and Tkachuk ended Carolina’s season.
“I’m proud of what we’ve built here and the guys that we have in there,” Brind’Amour said.
That didn’t take away from the sting of another season ending short of their goal.
“I feel like eight, nine of us here for five years, this one just felt different,” Martinook said. “I don’t know. It still feels different, then we’re done. I don’t know. I don’t know. Hurts a lot. It feels like you got run over by a bus, emotionally.”
Notes: Skjei had a career-high 11 hits, 10 of which came in the first two periods. … Tkachuk finished the series with four goals and an assist. … Sebastian Aho and Martinook finished tied for the team lead in points with 12 postseason points. … Andersen finished the playoffs with a 5-3 record, 1.83 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.