Even when you’re a former teammate, current friend and ongoing dinner companion, all bets are off once the puck drops. That’s why Matthews doesn’t expect to be spared from any chirps or physical play during Thursday’s Toronto Maple Leafs–Calgary Flames game at Scotiabank Arena.
“No, I don’t. Honestly,” said Matthews. “I think he doesn’t really take that stuff into account, he goes out there and competes every night, whether it’s against guys that he knows or guys that he’s friends with or not.
“That’s just the way he is. I think it’s the way it really should be.”
Tkachuk’s reputation as a thorn-in-your-side agitator hit a new level after Saturday’s Battle of Alberta, when he levelled Zack Kassian with a series of well-timed hits, but declined to oblige the Edmonton Oilers bruiser in a fight.
Not only did Kassian earn a two-game suspension from the NHL for attacking Tkachuk, he saw his team lose the game’s on a power-play goal scored while he was in the penalty box for going after him.
None of it was a surprise to Matthews, who saw Tkachuk perfect the art of getting under an opponent’s skin during their time together at the U.S. national development program. He was already well adept at doing it even as a teenager.
“That’s something that he feeds off of, obviously. I saw it first-hand for two years,” said Matthews. “I think he’s just a guy that you love to have on your team and on your side, and a guy you hate to play against. I mean he just likes to compete out there.
“He’ll play on the edge and, obviously, he’s kind of pissed a couple people off on the way to doing it.”
Even though Tkachuk has been pretty quiet against the Leafs during his NHL career — with one goal and three minor penalties in seven games — he was clearly on their minds in advance of his lone visit here this season.
Toronto is not a team that engages in much physical play, and head coach Sheldon Keefe wants his players to remain mindful of what style brings them success.
“It’s just being aware of the fact that he’s competitive and he’s going to come hard on every puck, and all those types of things,” Keefe said of Tkachuk. “But also not to let things go off the rails and become a sideshow, I think that’s part of it, as he looks to kind of change the focus that you might have in a game.
“That’s not what we want to be about. We want to just focus on what we have to do.”
Matthews is currently the NHL’s hottest scorer with 18 goals in his last 18 games and doesn’t think he’ll be distracted from the task at hand. Just like linemate Mitch Marner — a former teammate of Tkachuk’s with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights — he’s got some inside knowledge on the Flames winger.
So try as he might, it won’t be easy for Tkachuk to get inside the minds of Toronto’s top forwards.
“I think he knows that his stuff probably won’t work on me because I’ve seen it first-hand,” said Matthews. “He’s a guy, he gets under other guys’ skin and he does a really good job at it. To go with it he’s a heck of a player, as well, and puts up great numbers.
“Easy to play with. Makes plays all over the ice. Goes into those dirty areas and really good in front of the net, he uses his size.
“So a really good player.”