Dirty or not, Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk thrives when spotlight is on him

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine (29) and Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk (19) get in each other's face during second period NHL qualifying round game action in Edmonton, on Saturday August 1, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

Asked point blank if he thought Matthew Tkachuk was a dirty player, the pause from Paul Maurice was palpable.

“I don’t know, if you sin once are you a sinner?” said the Winnipeg Jets coach, one day after calling Tkachuk’s hit on Mark Scheifele dirty, filthy and disgusting.

“You know, sin 10 times? I don’t think he came off the bench and said, ‘Hey I’m going to see if I can go stab the back of Mark Scheifele’s leg with my skate.’ I think he got to that point and I think that’s exactly what he did. But I don’t think he’s skating across the ice thinking that’s what I’m going to do. I think he plays at a level he’s on the edge, he crosses it sometimes. He crossed it in my mind clearly. That’s exactly how I feel.”

Jets winger Adam Lowry was only slightly more diplomatic.

“I don’t know if I would say dirty – I would say reckless,” said the Jets’ bruising third liner.

“We all play hard. I don’t have the cleanest track record either. I know when you’re playing a physical brand of hockey, sometimes you step over the line.”

Well, that didn’t take long.

One game into the most intriguing matchup of the qualification round and everyone is already talking about Matthew Tkachuk.

Just how he likes it.

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Distracting the opposition with far more than just his mouthguard, Tkachuk has once again become the focal point of a juicy all-Canadian battle.

One side of the fight labels him a dirty player, the other insists he’s a gamer, a leader.

Welcome back to the playoffs, everyone, where nothing is black and white – it’s all shades of grey and whatever colour bruising is.

Not surprisingly, Maurice doubled down on his over-the-top accusation Sunday morning, prompting Lowry to join the Jets’ message.

“I agree with what Paul said last night – I don’t think it’s accidental,” said the sizable son of former Flames mucker, Dave. “I think it’s intentional.

“I don’t know if he meant to try to cut him, but I think it’s one of those plays where, how often does you skate come off the ice and land on the guy’s ankle? So that’s where I stand on it.”

Easy pickings on a guy with a reputation like Tkachuk’s.

Although both say their angle from the bench clearly showed it to be a kick, video from various angles certainly doesn’t confirm that, in any speed.

Flames interim coach Geoff Ward was fed up with all the accusations and wanted to open his press availability Sunday by defending his player.

“Knowing Matthew, was there intent for him to put his skate on to Mark Scheifele? No, there is no intent for him to do that,” said Ward of Tkachuk, whose teammates also defended him for a play that was not penalized. “There’s no way he was brought up to kick.

“If we’re talking about another player – Johnny Gaudreau instead of Tkachuk – we’re not talking about it. I understand what Paul is doing. He’s trying to defend and support his player and I’m going to defend and support my player right now. But he’s trying to get an elite player on our team suspended. The league made a ruling today [that there will be no suspension], there will be no further discussion, so we move on.”

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Either way, after Lowry referenced a cut and Maurice spoke of a prolific Scheifele return from a previous ankle injury, no one shouldn’t be surprised if the Jets’ top stud returned to the series after all. Then again, Maurice also alluded to the possibility the injury could be career-ending. We’ll see.

We’ll also see if Tkachuk can continue being a disruptive force, as required if the Flames are to build on their 1-0 series lead.

Keep in mind, he was every bit as prominent of Game 1 against Colorado last year before disappearing with the rest of his team.

It was one week ago Tkachuk spoke of being “sick of losing in the first round.”

On Saturday be proved it, living up to his billing as the “player to watch” despite being held off the score sheet. He drew a penalty that led to one of three special-teams goals, he knocked down Blake Wheeler in the post-injury fight and he held the Jets’ top line scoreless.

He dragged his team into the fight by imposing his will and physicality on a Winnipeg team previously known for its size.

His teammates followed his lead, which marks a significant shift for a Flames team that has been short on moxie and leadership en route to just one playoff win in their previous 11.

“There’s a standard physical edge and tone-setting that happens in a playoff game,” explained Maurice.

“They would have had the advantage to that. The end result really wasn’t much in terms of zone time or turnovers that ended up coming back at us. It was just guys finishing their routes. When we’re at our best we’re on the body, but we’re not built right now to be running people around the rink as a priority of our game.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

It has clearly become a priority for the Flames, with Tkachuk’s four hits topped only by Sam Bennett’s six for the Flames.

The Jets said they knew they Flames would try playing that style of game, but simply had no answer for it.

Expect that to change Game 2 Monday afternoon, meaning things are about to get even grittier.

While Scheifele and Patrik Laine were seeing specialists Sunday, Maurice was continuing his effort to remind league officials to keep an eye on Tkachuk.

After all, no. 19 is also the number one threat to disrupt the brilliance of Vezina frontrunner Connor Hellebuyck with his penchant for blue paint.

He’s also a threat to become the most talked about player in this tournament, as he was earlier in the year when he almost single-handedly re-ignited the Battle of Alberta.

This, as many predicted, is Matthew Tkachuk’s time.

How long it will last for him, and his team, depends largely on whether he can continue to do what he does best – stir it up.

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