CALGARY – Matthew Tkachuk opened the playoffs by treating John Klingberg like he was Drew Doughty’s little brother.
A smash into the end boards 10 seconds into the night was punctuated by another Klingberg crunch late in the first period, sparking a melee of sorts.
It was that second smackdown that prompted a period-ending scrum from which Tkachuk found himself fighting Michael Raffl.
Seconds later, Rasmus Andersson fought Klingberg.
If anyone thought it impossible for the decibel level to top that of the game-opening proceedings, Tkachuk found a way to prove them wrong.
He has a knack for that.
In between his two biggest blasts, No. 19 set up the game’s only goal in an important, emotional, series-opening win over the Dallas Stars.
Kudos to Jacob Markstrom for continuing his regular-season mastery in his very first playoff start in front of fans, making 16 saves to win 1-0.
But this night belonged to Tkachuk.
“That’s a statement,” said Blake Coleman of the man they call Chucky. “He’s the heartbeat right now. He’s in every scrum, he’s setting up plays, he’s scoring goals, he’s a tough guy to play against.
“This is obviously a big stage for him, he had a great season. I expect we haven’t seen the best of Matthew Tkachuk yet.”
Scary thought, if you bleed Stars green.
The highly anticipated playoff edition of the Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour opened to rave reviews.
Remember, when these two teams met in the playoff bubble two years earlier, Tkachuk left in the second game with a concussion that reduced him to a frustrated fan as his team coughed up the series.
His clear goal now is to be a headache for a Stars team he wants revenge on.
In the first period he led the charge with an opening shift that helped the club ride the emotion of a C of Red crowd that didn’t see a Stars shot on goal until the 11-minute mark.
After the Stars choked the fun out of the game in the second, as they’ve done since ol’ Hitch was in charge, the Flames returned serve in the third with a relentless forecheck that stifled any chance of a Dallas comeback.
And there, with 30 seconds left, was Tkachuk, pinning the puck in the Stars zone with the help of Johnny Gaudreau, as time ticked down with yet another explosive response from the fans.
“Forceful player,” said Darryl Sutter who expects as much from his most versatile troop.
“If we want to win another one you have to expect that, not just from Matthew but there are a lot of guys who are going to have to ramp their level up.”
Tkachuk is the type who can help them do that, as he demonstrated after his tussle by encouraging the crowd afterwards.
The response was thunderous.
“Just a lot of emotions obviously,” said Coleman of the moments surrounding Tkachuk’s fight.
“A great hit by Chucky. They took exception, but it was a good clean hit. That’s going to happen in the playoffs when emotions are high and battles ensue. That’s playoffs, it’s intense.”
There was no questioning whether it was a good tradeoff, as Raffl drew an extra two minutes, giving the Flames one of their five power plays in a penalty-filled game.
Asked if he’d rather not see Tkachuk in that position, Sutter scoffed, understandably.
“I’d rather see it,” he said.
“That was playoffs, that little confrontation.”
Andersson and Klingberg both must have been surprised by being tossed for starting a secondary fight, as neither are fighters who’d be aware their spur-of-the-moment scrap would end their evenings.
Klingberg certainly didn’t like it, even though he was the one asking Andersson for the dance.
“I mean, I’m not saying I’m a tough guy, but he’s acting tougher than he is,” said Klingberg, firing the series’ first salvo through the press with a threat.
“I feel like he’s the one guy there in the scrum, he doesn’t have a guy. I’m standing there with Coleman, and he’s standing there shaking his gloves to me, like ‘you wanna go against me,’ probably the least fighter on our team on the ice there. I’m skating over to him, I’m dropping my gloves and I want to go and he’s just standing there, two seconds, and then all of a sudden he drops his gloves. He’s acting a little tougher than he is. We’re going to go after him.”
The Flames, who out-hit the Stars 34-20, would love that.
“I think that’s the beauty of this team — you can play it any way you want,” said Coleman.
“We can rough it up a little bit. We can make plays, we can defend, we’ve great goaltending. Whatever the game calls for we can meet that challenge.”
They proved it in Game 1, shutting down all five of the Stars’ power plays in a game they had been warned by their coach would be tightly officiated.
“It’s a big area of focus, staying away from penalties and we saw it last night, what was called,” said Erik Gudbranson.
“They’re calling it pretty tight in all games. We have to be aware of that and stay away from the box.”
That’s not to say they can’t muck it up, a la Tkachuk.
“It was big,” said Gudbranson of Tkachuk’s first period.
“It got the crowd into it. It got the juices running in us. Along with what was going on with Matthew and a number of other guys laying the body, we were methodical about what we were doing.”
Punishing, antagonizing, dominating for stretches.
“They thought they were going to run us out of the rink and I’m proud of our guys,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness.
“We’re going to stand up to everything they throw at us. We’re going to stand up to them and we’re going to play through it.”
As Coleman predicted, expect Tkachuk to continue testing that theory.