Jacob Markstrom and Elias Lindholm may have been feted as the first and second stars of Tuesday’s playoff-opening 1-0 win over the Dallas Stars, but make no mistake, Matthew Tkachuk’s fingerprints were on almost everything good that the Calgary Flames did.
Though he didn’t make any of the 16 saves that Markstrom recorded for his second career playoff shutout or add to his total of three career playoff goals, he did set up Lindholm’s game winner.
Just as importantly though, he set the tone for the Flames in a physical victory that energized the first playoff crowd at the Saddledome in over three years. Most notably, he levelled John Klingberg with a crushing body check with less than 10 seconds remaining in the first period. When Stars Michael Raffl came over to discuss the intensity of that check, he then had no problem dropping the gloves and sending a message to the entire Stars team that this series will be very different to the 2020 first-round playoff encounter that Dallas won in six games on its way to the Stanley Cup final.
“That’s a statement you know, he’s the heartbeat right now,” said Flames centre Blake Coleman of his teammate. “He’s in every scrum, he’s setting up plays, he’s scoring goals. He’s a tough guy to play against, and for him, this is obviously a big stage for him.”
Even though head coach Darryl Sutter had cautioned his team in the run-up to Game 1 about the need for discipline, particularly given the amount of penalties that have been handed out in the first two nights of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flames bench boss had no regrets about seeing his top regular-season goalscorer drop the gloves.
“I rather would see it,” he said. “It’s the playoffs. You’ve got to have a little confrontation.”
The two-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach was a little less enthused with the penalties handed out after the next fight on the undercard, with Klingberg and Rasmus Andersson both handed game misconducts for their bout, with the first period producing a total of 50 penalty minutes combined.
However, Sutter expects Tkachuk and his team to continue playing in the same vein when Game 2 begins on Thursday.
“If we want to win another game,” he said of his team’s style of play. “We won 1-0 tonight, so if we want to win another, we expect that of Matthew and there’s lots of guys that have to ramp their game up.”
The last time Calgary entered the postseason as a division champion was in 2019, the most recent time it played host to playoff games at the Saddledome. However, Calgary, then the first seed in the Western Conference, was upended by an up-and-coming Colorado Avalanche team in an upset that left many questions about this team’s toughness.
Darryl Sutter wasn’t the coach of that team, however. Since returning behind the bench in March last year, the Viking, Alta., native has surrounded the nucleus of skilled, scoring talent such as Tkachuk and fellow 40-goal scorers Johnny Gaudreau and Lindholm with gritty veterans such as Coleman and defencemen Erik Gudbrandson and Nikita Zadorov.
With a capacity crowd of 19,289 squeezed into the Saddledome to witness a playoff game for the first time since the 2019 postseason, Calgary knew it needed to get the C of Red behind the home team as quickly as possible. Lindholm’s goal, where he passed to Gaudreau before one-timing the return pass from Tkachuk past Jake Oettinger just five minutes and one second into the game, was the perfect way to do just that. But Tkachuk’s continued physical edge helped keep the crowd onside, showing them that this Flames team is not about to be cowed in the same way the 2019 edition was.
“It was big,” Gudbranson said of his teammate’s willingness to take the body. “Got the crowd into it, got the juices running, and I thought - especially in that first period with what was going on with Matthew and a few other guys... We were pretty calm, cool and collected. There were moments when we lost it, but we bent, but didn’t break.”
More of the same will be required when Game 2 goes Thursday in Calgary. Although Dallas never really got anything going, and hardly any of its 16 shots were of the gilt-edged variety, the Stars still boast a fearsome top line.
Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson combined as the most productive line since the Stars’ first season in Dallas in 1993-94. Their 232 points was just behind the 234 put up by Mike Modano, Russ Courtnall and Dave Gagner.
Up against that amount of skill, to say nothing of Tyler Seguin and former Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn, the Flames know they will have to be more disciplined, and that starts with staying out of the box. Calgary was a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill on Tuesday – and had the sixth-best PK in the NHL this season at 83.2 per cent.
But handing Dallas that much time on the power play is bound to cause problems at some point in the series if it’s not taken care of.
“You want to play less than that, obviously, in the playoffs,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a big area of focus, staying away from penalties. We saw it last night with what was called and whatnot. They’re calling it pretty tight in all games.”