WINNIPEG — Matthew Tkachuk needs no introduction in the Battle of Alberta, but how long will it take for the Calgary Flames feisty forward to make a ripple in the play-in series with the Winnipeg Jets?
No matter what odds are given, it’s probably a safe bet to take the under.
Tkachuk, the son of Jets 1.0 captain Keith Tkachuk, doesn’t really have a history of agitating against Winnipeg — or should we say not yet.
Not unless you count an animated exchange with former Jets winger Brendan Lemieux a few years back at the YoungStars tournament in Penticton, B.C. back in 2016.
With the Jet and Flames meeting just one time this season in the Heritage Classic in Regina back in late October, there is currently no bad blood bubbling right below the surface.
But you can be sure Tkachuk won’t need much time to find the blue paint inside the crease of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck on Saturday night.
Or to try and get into the kitchen of anyone wearing a Jets jersey.
That will be the rule, not the exception — if Tuesday’s exhibition game (a 4-1 win for the Oilers) is any indication.
If you figured Tkachuk might need some time to find his edge after an absence of four-plus months, you thought wrong.
Tkachuk got under the skin of Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl early, annoyed goalie Mikko Koskinen (who took a wild swing with his stick during the first period) and then forced James Neal to take a retaliatory slashing minor.
Tkachuk also provided a screen on the Flames’ opening goal on the power play.
Had this been something other than an exhibition game, there’s a better-than-average chance the play would have gone to video review — though the argument against it would be that Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse initiated the contact that caused Tkachuk to bump into Mike Smith.
All in a day’s work for Tkachuk, who had four shots on goal and is expected to be a difference-maker for the Flames in this best-of-five series.
Tkachuk isn’t just a pain in the you-know-what to play against, he’s a key offensive contributor who led the Flames in scoring this season with 23 goals and 61 points in 69 games.
With the Flames having last change in Game 1, you can expect interim head coach Geoff Ward to try and get Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane out against the Jets’ top line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and captain Blake Wheeler.
The Jets will need to be aware of Tkachuk whenever he’s on the ice — and can’t afford to get caught up in much of the extra-curricular activity that can occur after the whistle.
Here are four others things the Jets could learn about the Flames prior to their own exhibition tilt with the Vancouver Canucks:
WARD SHOWS HIS HAND — OR DOES HE?
One of the biggest storylines heading into training camp surrounded which goalie the Flames would be between the pipes in Game 1 of the post-season.
So what to make of Cam Talbot getting the start on Tuesday night in the lone exhibition game?
Talbot gave up a goal just 64 seconds into the contest on a juicy rebound after he made a good save on the initial shot, then allowed another to Connor McDavid as the Oilers top-ranked power-play unit struck.
But after looking a bit uncomfortable in the early stages, Talbot settled in nicely and turned aside 19 of 21 shots before giving way to David Rittich midway through the second period.
Rittich, who stopped seven of nine shots he faced, was chosen to participate in the NHL All-Star Game this season but endured some rocky moments down the stretch — which was when Talbot played his best.
For what it’s worth, Talbot is a pending unrestricted free agent while the Flames committed to Rittich last summer.
However, with Rittich giving up two late goals in 33 seconds late in the third period after the Flames had controlled a good chunk of the play, it won’t be a surprise if Talbot gets the start in Game 1.
TOP GUNS ON THE BOARD
The Flames’ top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm are under pressure to perform after a poor showing against the Colorado Avalanche in the opening round last spring.
While it’s important to remember this was an exhibition game and there was a long layoff for all of the players, it was an inauspicious start for the Flames’ big guns, as they were on the ice for the early goal-against.
However, Lindholm — who led the Flames with a career-high 29 goals — scored a power-play marker and Gaudreau chipped in an assist.
Monahan is going to need to try and keep up with Scheifele in this series, whether the two are going head-to-head or facing other match-ups.
That’s no easy task.
Entering the match-up, Scheifele has 16 goals and 26 points in 27 career playoff games, while Monahan has eight goals and 13 points in 20 games.
It’s not a stretch to suggest this series is being viewed by some as a referendum for the Flames’ core.
How those top guns perform could go a long way towards determining whether the Flames will be moving on to the round of 16 or facing another early exit.
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED
Flames winger Milan Lucic has a decisive edge when it comes to playoff experience, as he’s suited up in 114 postseason games — the bulk of which came as a member of the Boston Bruins.
The Flames have the least amount of playoff game experience of the 24 teams involved in the post-season tournament with 323. For the sake of comparison, the Jets have 515, while the Bruins have the most with 1,191.
Lucic had a rough start to the season after coming over in the trade with the Oilers, but he rekindled his passion for the game under Ward and playing on a line with Derek Ryan and Dillon Dube.
When he’s on his game, Lucic has the potential to be a physical presence and provide some secondary scoring.
Dube, 22, is about to make his post-season debut and has the potential to be an X-factor for the Flames.
As a former captain of Canada’s world junior team, Dube isn’t afraid of a big stage and he’s a tenacious player who has the ability to create offensive opportunities for himself and others.
His slick saucer pass to Sam Bennett on an odd-man rush during the third period showcased his playmaking ability, though Bennett was unable to convert the glorious chance.
GUSTAFSSON RUNS TOP POWER-PLAY UNIT
As expected, blue-liner Erik Gustafsson finds himself at the top of the Flames No. 1 power play unit.
The Jets are quite familiar with Gustafsson from his time with the Chicago Blackhawks and he’s got the ability to get his shot through from the point — just like he did on the Flames’ goal.
Special teams are often important when two teams are as evenly-matched as the Jets and Flames, and it’s clear Gustafsson was acquired prior to the NHL trade deadline to give the power play a shot in the arm.
Gustafsson is a good puck-mover, but isn’t known for his defensive prowess at even strength, which is why he’s on the third pairing with Forbort.
On the Oilers’ first goal, Gustafsson was a bit hesitant to challenge Draisaitl on the entry, then got caught in no-man’s land defensively as Kailer Yamamoto came cruising into the high slot to pick up the loose puck and bury the early marker.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT OF TRAVIS HAMONIC OPTING OUT?
Rasmus Andersson is one of the beneficiaries of the decision by Manitoba product Travis Hamonic opting out of the return-to-play plan.
Andersson, whose average ice time was up nearly four minutes from last season, is comfortable playing alongside Noah Hanifin on the second pairing and that was evident against the Oilers.
However, Hamonic is a minute-muncher on the Flames’ penalty kill and his willingness (and ability) to block shots would have come in handy against the Jets — and specifically on the one-timer side where Patrik Laine resides with the man-advantage.
In Tuesday’s game, Derek Forbort — acquired at the deadline from the Los Angeles Kings — took Hamonic’s spot on the top penalty-killing unit with Flames captain Mark Giordano.
Forbort will be an important part of a concerted effort to limit Laine’s impact with the man-advantage.