Matthew Tkachuk has been in South Florida less than a year, but the NHL All-Star who grew up in Missouri and broke into the league in Canada, knows a hot sports market when he sees one.
And it doesn’t get much hotter than Miami these days.
“I think it’s been awesome for the fans. As a sports fan, in general, I love watching the Heat play, and I loved going to their game the other night,” the Florida Panthers forward said Monday. “I think for all of South Florida, just being able to watch the Heat one night, and us the other night, is hopefully very cool.”
Indeed, in a region known for its beautiful beaches, wild nightlife, and celebrity mansions, two teams miles apart have captured South Florida’s attention more than anyone could have imagined. And this week, for the first time ever, the region will host the NBA Finals and the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals across a four-day span.
“We hope this makes for a fun week for the fans,” Tkachuk said. “It would be nice if we could reward them all.”
It won’t be easy. The Heat are tied, 1-1, against the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets, with Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday, respectively, at Kaseya Center.
The Panthers have a taller order. They trail the No. 1 seed Vegas Golden Knights, 2-0, with Games 3 and 4 at FLA Live Arena on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
“The parts of our game where we know we can improve, we’re going to have to get to real fast, there’s no doubt about that,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said after the Panthers’ Game 2 loss Monday. “But, we’ll have a pretty simple game plan.”
Being on home ice, where the Panthers won the Eastern Conference Final two weeks ago, should help. After facing a swarm of gold and gray-clad fans in Las Vegas, they will be back in comfortable surroundings.
“It’s not over,” Panthers center Anton Lundell said after Game 2. “We still believe, you know? We’re down two, we want to rest and have recovery, but we’ll be ready to go on home ice and try to get a lot of energy from our home fans. We’ll be ready to put it all out for them in Game 3.”
It has been nearly ten years since South Florida swept the streets of confetti, following a title parade for the Heat in 2013. And though there are challenges ahead for both teams, they’ve both won series as underdogs all spring.
The Panthers are not familiar with success this late into the season, having made just one prior Finals appearance in team history, all the way back to the days of the Miami Arena in 1996. At that time, they shared that building with the Heat, who have made playing this deep into the spring a staple. Miami has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals and two of the last four NBA Finals.
Unsurprisingly, South Floridians are elated with these playoff runs. Not considered the most loyal sports town in the country in most years, the market has clearly rallied around two teams that are No. 8 seeds and had to scratch and claw just to make the postseason.
Gabriel Oritz, for instance, a lifelong Panthers and Heat fan, is having the time of his life.
“I don’t think I have ever enjoyed sports so much in my life,” he said. “I’ve been a fan of South Florida teams for a very long time, and this has been the most fun I have had. Sharing this with my son has probably been my favorite part. I would love for both teams to win a title, but even if they don’t, I have enjoyed this so much I am not sure if it would matter.”
Mael Benoit, a fan that Caplin News caught up to at FLA Live Arena during the second-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs last month, concurs.
“I am from France and have been living in South Florida a while. All the passion makes you want to have some part of it,” he said. “I had to come to a game to see what it was all about, and it’s even more intense than I thought.”
An NHL and NBA team in the same region playing this deep into the postseason in the same year has happened before, but not often. And when it has, no region has won both titles. In 1994, for instance, the New York Knicks lost the NBA Finals, but the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup. In 2003, the New Jersey Nets lost the NBA Finals, but the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup.
This week will go a long way toward proving if South Florida can be the first.