TORONTO — With a precious standings point hanging in the balance and a chorus of boos raining from the rafters, Matthew Tkachuk calmly gathered the puck at centre ice, cruised down the left wing, curled to the slot, pulled back and flung the shootout winner clean and low through Frederik Andersen’s legs.
In a snap, the villain turned hero.
“I’m sure he’ll get booed more in Edmonton than he did here,” cracked Calgary Flames teammate Derek Ryan following the visitors’ 2-1 victory.
“He just thrives in the moment. He loves to be in the spotlight. He loves to be in the high-pressure situation.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the type of group immune to Tkachuk’s extracurricular antics. They rarely engage in hockey’s darker arts and prefer a speedy, low-impact contest (goaltenders’ egos being the exception). Many a night at Scotiabank Arena passes where one could count the number of scrums on no hands.
“We’re a team that’s good when emotion gets into our game, but we don’t get distracted by guys,” explained Jason Spezza.
At 37, Spezza is the only Leaf old enough to intimately remember a time when the Kassian vs. Tkachuk feud wouldn’t be unique enough to linger in the press five days after first contact.
“If you talked to guys who played 10, 15 years ago, those scrums happened every night. There was a bit more bad blood in the league,” Spezza said. “He’s a combination of high-end skill and being able to do that, so he’s a unique player for sure.”
So even though Tkachuk went out of his way to get in the grill of Leafs forward Dmytro Timashov early Thursday night and try to crawl under some blue skin, Toronto turned cheek, chugged legs and drew penalties.
It became apparent early, this wasn’t to be a “Chucky” type of affair.
And yet, with a bonus point on the line, both goalies standing on their heads and the Pacific Division playoff race resembling a traffic jam, it was Tkachuk burning Andersen through the wickets and making a difference with his blade, when his shoulders and lips went mute.
“I was like, finally, someone shoots five-hole,” said David Rittich, pitching a 35-save masterpiece. “I was glad he did it.”
Tkachuk dedicated the snipe to his friend and goaltender, who will be joining him in St. Louis, a town overrun with Tkachuks, next week for the All-Star Game.
“You want to do everything in your power to win the game for him,” Tkachuk said. “He was our best player tonight, easily. For us to reward him, it was definitely on my mind.”
Interim coach Geoff Ward believes Tkachuk — to him, a leading scorer and all-star agitator; to so many others, public enemy No. 1 — rises to his best on the grand stage, thermostat cranked.
“It’s part of their DNA. They look forward to the big games and look forward to have an opportunity to make a difference in big games,” Ward explained.
“We had the same situation in Boston when I was [an assistant coach] with Brad Marchand — highly talented guy, can play the agitator role really well.
“You like having those guys on your team, and you hate playing against them.”
With the suspended Kassian continuing to pour gasoline on the resurrected inferno that is the Battle of Alberta through his scrums and encouraging us to circle Jan. 29’s Flames-Oilers rematch on our calendars, Tkachuk is downplaying the hype.
Zack Kassian isn’t going to forget about what Matthew Tkachuk did.
Circle your for January 29th. pic.twitter.com/L5KFBTKFDA
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 14, 2020
Ward spoke with Tkachuk about the Kassian situation Wednesday, and the club agreed that the topic would be off-limits Thursday.
GM Brad Treliving spoke out saying he wasn’t a fan of all the chatter in the media about Tkachuk’s character and made it clear the organization wasn’t interested in adding to the soundbites.
To a man, the Flames directed focus on defeating the Leafs, then did it.
Calgary became the first team to limit Sheldon Keefe’s weapons to fewer than three goals since it last completed the feat on Dec. 12, and although Rittich was the game’s first star, Tkachuk got the last laugh.
“Real good focus by him in order to keep out the noise and stay focused on what he had to do,” praised Ward, considering the narrative waiting for the Flames in Alberta.
“It gives people an opportunity to promote the game, write stories and both fan bases are into it. That makes for good conversation around the game, but I don’t think the players are concerned about that.”
Sean Monahan believes the Flames are in “must-win” territory already.
Tkachuk said he’s reached the point where he’s checking Western Conference scores post-game.
He might give us some slick talk about the Oil later this month, but in the meantime, he’s zeroed in on defeating brother Brady’s Ottawa Senators on Saturday, then heading home to bask in his first all-star weekend.
“Normal five days for me,” Tkachuk shrugged.
“I don’t let anything distract me.”