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Tkachuk does the leading, and the Florida Panthers are happily following

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — It may as well be called the official celebration of Matthew Tkachuk. He scores an overtime goal to win a playoff game, jumps around for a couple seconds, then quickly points to the rink door and takes off for the locker room.

And the Florida Panthers all follow him.

Makes sense. The Panthers would follow Tkachuk anywhere right about now. Two more wins, and they’ll be following him to the Stanley Cup Final as well.

After a couple of dramatic finishes in Raleigh, Tkachuk and the Panthers are headed home for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday night. Florida — which was down 3-1 in the first round to Boston and on the brink — leads this series 2-0, after Tkachuk became the 12th player in NHL history with overtime goals in consecutive playoff games.

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“He’s been everything, and even more, than what we had expected,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said.

Here’s some of what Tkachuk has managed in his first year with the Panthers:

—One of four players in NHL history to have three overtime game-winners in a postseason.

—Finished the regular season with 109 points and 123 penalty minutes, the first player to have that many of each since Eric Lindros in 1995-96 and the first since Sidney Crosby in 2005-06 to have at least 100 in both categories.

MVP of the All-Star Game, on the Panthers’ home ice.

—Finalist for the Hart Trophy, hockey’s MVP, for the first time.

Oh, and Florida is up 2-0 in the East final. There’s still going to be ice on the floor of FLA Live Arena into at least the last week of May; that’s never needed to happen in the quarter-century of the Panthers calling that building (which has had five different names in that span) their home.

“He’s an exceptional guy and even over the course of the year, he’s kind of matured,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He wasn’t immature. But he’s just grown into that leadership role and he’s one of those guys that can touch everybody in the room, whether it’s the fourth-line guy or the extra guy. He plays a gritty game. He also plays a very highly skilled game so he can connect with everybody in the room.”

This is how big a star Tkachuk has become in his first postseason run with the Panthers: Jimmy Butler, who’s a bit busy right now leading the eighth-seeded Miami Heat as they — like eighth-seeded Florida — chase an improbable NBA championship, let the world see he was wearing a Tkachuk jersey for an off-day shooting workout a few days ago.

South Florida is a Basketball Town right now. It’s also a Hockey Town. It’s a great problem to have, with four home conference final games — Heat Sunday, Panthers Monday, Heat Tuesday, Panthers Wednesday — in a span of four nights.

“I don’t really know if it has sunk in or if we’re allowing ourselves to let it sink in,” Tkachuk said. “We’re just kind of riding the wave right now. I guess, it’s just ‘Let good times roll.’ It’s just fun to come to the rink every day and it’s fun to be at the rink every day. We’re still standing.”

It’s not just because of Tkachuk. The Panthers have a lot of heroes right now.

Barkov pulled off an all-time goal in Game 2 at Carolina. Carter Verhaeghe has three game-winning goals in the playoffs for Florida. Brandon Montour has six goals to lead all NHL defensemen in the playoffs. And goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been absolutely unflappable, going 9-1 in his last 10 games and stopping 94.9% of the shots he’s seen in his last eight outings.

They’re just 2-3 at home in the playoffs, but 8-1 on the road — with five of those road wins in OT.

“We’re a confident group no matter where we’re playing,” Florida forward Sam Bennett said after Saturday’s 2-1 OT win at Carolina in Game 2 — the eighth consecutive win on the road for the Panthers in these playoffs, the second-longest such run in NHL history.

It all started with a confident move by general manager Bill Zito last summer.

The Panthers made a huge splash by trading Jonathan Huberdeau, the leading scorer on a team that had the best regular season in the NHL a year ago, to Calgary for Tkachuk, who signed an eight-year deal in that process. The messages were clear: Regular-season joyrides aren’t what the Panthers are seeking, and Tkachuk — the son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk and brother of Ottawa forward Brady Tkachuk — would make them a much tougher out in the playoffs.

So far, so good. The Panthers had an up-and-down regular season and had to rally just to make the playoffs. They eliminated Boston after the Bruins had the best regular season in NHL history and took a 3-1 lead over Florida in that series. They ousted Toronto in five games, and now have a Carolina team that Maurice calls hockey’s best club in terms of analytics squarely on the ropes.

Tkachuk changed everything.

“He’s kind of become the face of the Florida Panthers,” said Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s all-time points king and now a TNT analyst. “They’ve got a lot of good players and they’ve had a really nice season and they’ve had some success over the last few years, but he changed their franchise, let’s be honest.”

A quadruple-overtime winner in Game 1 at Carolina started Tkachuk’s new end-of-game celebration, and he didn’t even need two minutes of OT in Game 2 before he did it again. What he’s doing on the ice — everything from big goals to blocking shots — is clear for the whole world to see. How he carries himself off the ice equally impresses those around him; he throws team dinners, knows the name of everyone in the organization and gives everyone from Barkov to bus drivers the same respect.

“Before he got here, he was one of those players you hated to play against,” Barkov said. “He plays a hard game, is in your face all the time, he is not afraid of pretty much anything. And then he gets here and he’s the one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”

In other words, where he goes, the Panthers will follow.

___

AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports