MONTREAL – It’s never surprising when Matthew Tkachuk manages to steal the spotlight, as the polarizing pest has the rare ability to turn games on a dime any number of ways.
His targeting of Zack Kassian Saturday ultimately decided the outcome of a game won 4-3 by the Flames, who cashed in on a power play that came courtesy of Kassian’s series of Hulk smashes on Tkachuk, who was unwilling to dance once again.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety said Sunday it saw nothing wrong with Tkachuk’s helmet-removing hits on Kassian, but would have a hearing with Kassian for the attack.
The debate rages on over Tkachuk’s responsibility as the game continues to struggle to interpret its ever-evolving hockey code.
On Sunday the questions continued, as those north of Red Deer were stunned that Tkachuk’s three targeted blasts on Kassian were deemed by league officials to be above board.
Those in the southern half of Alberta were thrilled it’s Kassian who will be answering to league disciplinarian George Parros Monday for showering the cowering Tkachuk with more than a half dozen furious lefts to the cranium as he covered up with gloves firmly attached.
No one is wondering if it was a coincidence the second linesman took his time intervening in what used to be considered a matter to be solved by the two players.
No one is debating the merits of having a lad like Tkachuk awaken the Battle of Alberta with his black hat.
It’s clear which fan base will be buying the “Get off the tracks” T-shirts and which will buck up for the “He’s a (expletive)” paraphernalia.
All of it is good for business.
This was, without question, one of the NHL’s finest of three-hour sessions this season. The game had everything, including several lead changes, another gem from Connor McDavid, a whopping 49 hits and some ever-welcome vitriol and controversy.
Better yet, the war of words continued in the respective dressing rooms, setting up even juicier rematches Jan. 29 and Feb. 1.
Not lost in Calgary’s dressing room was just how complete a game the Pacific-leading Flames played, raising hope that perhaps when the chips are down moving forward, there is a large cast of characters capable of rising to the challenge.
That was the knock on the Flames last spring when they collapsed en masse.
On this night, several notable performances were worthy of praise, making it almost as hard to pick the three stars as it was to convince fans on either side the merits of what Tkachuk did or didn’t do when asked to dance.
The Flames power play was the difference, the penalty kill preserved the win and the Flames have won five in a row to set up an all-Canadian road trip through Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa this week with plenty of heroes on board, including:
• Elias Lindholm: For the second time in three games the Flames best player scored twice – quite a statement in a game in which his chief responsibility was to try shutting down McDavid. The man who does it all for the Flames hit the 20-goal mark with his game-winner on the power play, and was key in shutting down the Oilers only man advantage late in the evening. He has given the Flames a versatility it didn’t have before by centering the top line with Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, allowing Sean Monahan’s second unit to go up against Leon Draisaitl’s line.
• Johnny Gaudreau: It was poetic that ten minutes after McDavid put the visitors up 2-1, the Flames resident top gun responded with a top-shelf beauty, made possible by one of his patented east-west ventures inside the blue line that opened up his shooting lane. A game-high six shots on goal in a contest in which he rebounded from a nightmarish shift that saw his turnover ultimately bounce into his own goal off his leg.
• Tkachuk: Put all the drama aside, the Flames highest-paid player was money all night, leading the game with six hits, helping to limit McDavid’s effectiveness, providing the perfect screen on Lindholm’s game-winner and then topping it all off with a quote to be enshrined in the Battle’s hall of fame.
• Dillon Dube: The kid from nearby Cochrane said before the game his wildest dreams of playing in the NHL never included playing in the BOA he watched as a kid. Yet, there he was snapping in a game-tying goal midway through the second period. Off a relentless forecheck that saw Derek Ryan pick off an Ethan Bear clearing attempt and fire it at Mikko Koskinen, Dube converted the rebound with a sweet finish. Justice-served for Dube, who was robbed by Koskinen three minutes into the night.
• Cam Talbot: One of the brightest spotlights heading into the game was on the former Oiler, who earned his third-straight start and walked away with his fourth-straight win. Several of his 29 saves were pivotal, including a sprawling pad save on James Neal who was unable to convert on an open net, as he did so often as a Flame last season.
• Monahan: Continuing his focus on being more physical, he was fully engaged at both ends of the ice, finishing with an assist and a screen on Koskinen that allowed Gaudreau’s goal to find the net.
None of this is forgetting to mention the tenacity of Sam Bennett, the shot-blocking grittiness of Travis Hamonic or the forechecking of Mangiapane who almost opened the scoring in the first minute, as he did in the Flames first win in Edmonton Dec. 27.
Very few passengers.
“I agree with you – we had a solid night up and down our lineup,” said Talbot, who only had three teammates who failed to register a shot on goal.
“Gio and Brodes did a heck of a job on their top line, and Hani and Hammer did a great job as well. Our back end was extremely solid and we had a lot of support from our forwards coming back. We just got so many contributions from everyone in this room.”
For a Flames fan base that relished a memorable evening at the Dome, there were so many encouraging signs, so many delicious storylines and palpable excitement for the imminent return engagement.