Matthew Tkachuk has found his stride.
Great for the Battle of Alberta. Not so much, probably, for the Edmonton Oilers.
But Tkachuk, who seemed to struggle to find his groove for much of a seven-game series against the Dallas Stars to open the Stanley Cup Playoffs, exploded in a critical Game 7 and has seen that performance carry over into Game 1 at Edmonton’s expense.
Tkachuk was third among Flames forwards in ice time in the regular season at 17:54, but skated just 16:16 as part of a 19-shift effort in Game 3 against Dallas, and followed it up with a series-low 16:00 in Game 4. He seemed, largely, tangled in controversies with Stars defenceman John Klingberg, or busy fielding offers from forward Jamie Benn.
He was at his best when he settled in.
When he was controlled.
Tkachuk, who was eighth in NHL scoring the regular season with an NHL career-high 42-goal, 104-point campaign, played 21:50 over 33 shifts in Game 7 and had six shots on goal. One, to tie the game 2-2 midway through the second period, was a rare puck that beat stellar goalie Jake Oettinger. He added an assist on Gaudreau’s overtime game-winner, too, to dump Dallas 3-2 in the extra-session affair.
Two points. Six shots. 21:50 of ice time. One game. He had no goals and just 10 shots, and a -2 rating, in the six games that preceded it.
“Matthew, he’s a leader on our team,” Calgary rearguard Noah Hanifin said of Tkachuk after Game 1 against the Stars. “He’s a player that’s definitely built for playoffs. He’s playing his best hockey when he gets that emotion going.”
But, for the most part, the 6’2″, 200-pound forward parked the emotional aspect heading into Game 1 against Edmonton.
But Tkachuk, the No. 6 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, didn’t pause the impact.
Among forwards, only Elias Lindholm played more. No one had more shots on goal than Tkachuk’s eight, either.
And, of course, none topped his three-goal outburst, completely closing the door on any hope for an Oilers comeback with a breakaway marker and the empty-netter that followed it to take a 1-0 series lead via a 9-6 rollercoaster ride.
“There’s some energy to his game, some emotion,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter preached after the hat trick effort. “Controlled, which is good.”
When he wasn’t scoring, Tkachuk was a thorn in Edmonton’s side, but not to the point of being a distraction or turning the opening game into a circus — something he seemed to embrace early in the series against Dallas.
It’s surprising, given his run-ins with Oilers goalie Mike Smith, Edmonton forward Zack Kassian, and roughly 18-or-so other opponents residing up the QEII.
But great timing, too, with the two teams sharing some regular-season rivalries since Tkachuk’s draft day, but no playoff passion between the two franchises since before the winger’s birth.
“Very excited,” Tkachuk said prior to puck drop on Game 1. “Been…I wouldn’t say dreaming, but obviously, this has been in the back of my mind ever since I’ve been drafted here, however long ago that was. Pretty cool that it’s the first time in 30-plus years.
“I think for me, I didn’t really grow up in this rivalry or grow up in Alberta. I’m serious when I say I didn’t know about it until I got drafted. It’s gotten bigger the last few years with both teams playing a lot better and maybe meeting each other in playoffs and here we are.”
Here they are.
There Tkachuk is, too, in the middle of it all.
Full speed ahead.
Front and centre.