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Matthew Tkachuk is back and ready to go as Panthers are set to open training camp

Florida Panthers' Matthew Tkachuk speaks during the NHL hockey team's media day, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Florida Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk speaks during the NHL hockey team’s media day, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

BY TIM REYNOLDS contributing

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — There were times this summer when Matthew Tkachuk wondered if he would be ready for training camp, wondered if the fractured sternum that he tried to play through in the Stanley Cup Final would allow him to be on the ice when the season started.

And then about a month ago, he started feeling right again.

With that, the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers have their first win of the season — their leading scorer is ready for Thursday’s start of training camp. The facial scruff is in place, the collar has been ripped off his team-issued T-shirt and he has pronounced himself ready to go.

“I feel really good,” Tkachuk said Wednesday at the team’s media day, the annual prelude to camp starting. “It’s exciting to be back. It’s more exciting to be back fully ready to go.”

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That’s not the case with everyone on the Panthers’ roster. Top defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour remain out while recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries, with mid-December the current target for their potential returns. It’s a very fluid date, but if that time frame holds up they each could miss the first 30 games or so this season.

Tkachuk had a flair for drama throughout Florida’s playoff run: 11 goals, 13 assists, 24 points, four game-winning goals, two of those being overtime game-winners against Carolina (including one with 13 seconds left in the fourth OT of Game 1 of that series) and the East final-winner with 4.9 seconds left against the Hurricanes to cap Florida’s first postseason sweep.

Including the playoffs, he finished his first Florida season with 133 points and 197 penalty minutes. That combination of numbers is almost unheard of in NHL history; the only other player to finish a full season, including playoffs, with that many points and penalty minutes was Kevin Stevens — who had 151 points and 282 penalty minutes for Pittsburgh in 1991-92.

“I saw him play golf the other day, so I think he’s all right,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said of Tkachuk. “Yeah, just to see him, given the skates we had last week and the scrimmages and just to see what he can do on the ice and how easy it looks when he does what he does with the puck, without the puck, how he finds everyone on the ice, it’s close to no one. It’s great to have that type of guy on your team and that type of leader on your team.”

Tkachuk was an MVP finalist last season and played part of the Stanley Cup Final against Vegas — and scored a goal, even — with a fractured sternum. It was so painful that teammates had to help him put his pads on, get his jersey over his head and tie his skates. He couldn’t play in Game 5, when Vegas clinched the series by rolling past Florida to win its first title.

But now he’s back and says it’s time to turn the page toward goals for the coming season.

“I know he worked awfully, awfully hard,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “He was in contact with our sports science and trainers very regularly, just on making sure that he was doing everything he could. A presence like that … Matthew, what he does on the ice is one thing. What he does off the ice, how he comports himself as a person, helps his teammates, it’s that total package. So, having him in camp, participating is huge.”

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