“Who else, right?” Tkachuk hero for the Panthers again in game 4

In a small hallway, just outside the Florida Panthers locker room, she squeezed him tight, standing in front of a giant Panthers logo mounted on the wall as photo after photo was taken of him and his father, Keith, and various other family combinations and friends.

This was their trophy. This was her trophy.

Time after time, it was Tkachuk who had found a way, scored a goal, captured the big moments, grabbed the Panthers and dragged them along. So it was again Wednesday night.

After the Hurricanes tied the score with 3:22 remaining in regulation Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tkachuk beat Frederik Andersen with the game-winning power-play goal 4.9 seconds into what would have been the third overtime in four games.

It didn’t come that far. Tkachuk did not allow, the 4-3 win in Game 4 sending the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Finals after a four-game streak in the best-of-7 conference finals, with each game decided by a single goal.

“Who else, right?” defender Aaron Ekblad She said. “Who else?”

That’s why Tkachuk gripped that trophy so tightly. He and the Panthers had earned it, scratching and clawing and exceeding expectations and beliefs and predictions, securing a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals that literally felt like a ticket to any other team in the East.

Whoever was not the team that would now play for the Cup.

“The last thing we’re going to do is be superstitious about not touching it,” Tkachuk said. “Like, nobody said we were even going to make the playoffs. I think it’s pretty cool to touch it and carry it around and take pictures with it. We’ve earned that thing.

“[We] he definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it. I feel like if you’re blocking shots, taking shots, doing whatever it takes to win a trophy like that, you might as well enjoy it.”

[RELATED: Complete Hurricanes vs. Panthers series coverage]

Because, again, they weren’t supposed to be here. Their run was supposed to end weeks ago, at the hands of the Boston Bruins. They would be swept or, at least, lose in five games in the Eastern Conference first round, crushed by the team that had won the most games and earned the most points in any regular season in NHL history.

Instead, the Panthers fought their way through the Bruins in Game 7 of the best-of-7 series, defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games in the second round, and ultimately swept the Hurricanes out of the playoffs. All this, after a regular season in which the Panthers made the playoffs only 54 of 190 days and have now become the only team in the NHL’s expansion era (from 1967-68) to reach the finals after spending less than 30% of the season in a playoff berth.

Could Ekblad have guessed that in January, when the team was sinking and the playoffs seemed a million miles away?

“Nope,” he said.

But Tkachuk dragged them there. He’s dragged them through a season in which he’s a Hart Trophy finalist as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, he’s dragged them through the first round and second round and now, into the Stanley Cup Finals.

“It’s inexplicable what he brought to this team,” said Ekblad.

That’s why they didn’t panic when Jesper Fast tied the score with 3:22 remaining. Because they didn’t care or squeeze. They believed, as they so often have.

“We know what we have in there,” Tkachuk said. “We know how to play. We know the right way to play, we know what makes us successful. And being involved with the guys and seeing conviction and just calmness for us is really something special. For example, nothing shakes us. If they score at three minutes to go, you’d think, uh oh, this is it, what’s going to happen? But it’s the other way around.”

When the puck came in with 4.9 seconds left, Tkachuk slid across the ice to his knees, his mouthguard dangling and the fans crazed. On the bench, coach Paul Maurice punched assistant Jamie Kompon in the ribs and Ekblad rubbed his beard with Marc Staal and mice rained down, while the crowd completely ignored the board’s plea not to throw objects on the ice.

They, after all, had waited so long for this.

“You go that far and play that long for a chance,” Ekblad said. “Just one chance.”

The Panthers have been to the Cup Finals once in their 29-year history, in their third season of existence, 1995-96. They were swept by the Colorado Avalanche that season and have only made the playoffs seven times since then, winning exactly one round (last season, against the Washington Capitals).

No one knows that like Ekblad, the defenseman selected with the first pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and Alexander Barkovselected no. 2 in the 2013 NHL Draft, by far the longest running Panthers on the team.

“It’s hard to explain right now,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. To get to this point, you know how hard you have to work. You see how many great teams we’ve just beaten in the playoffs, so far. It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it will be easy.

“But of course we all know there’s another great series on the way.”

They raised a trophy, took pictures with it, basked in it, celebrated with it. It’s them.

But the Panthers are far from finished. Because there’s another trophy they intend to raise.

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