Rosie DiManno: Matthew Tkachuk beats the Leafs with his hands — and keeps his guard up

The halo of blond curls gives Matthew Tkachuk an angelic appearance.

As if this cherub wouldn’t commit even a bitty venal sin. As if.

And Lord in heaven knows, if turning the other cheek — or covering one’s cheeks behind one’s shielding gloves — is the name of the game these days, a virtue, then Tkachuk had nothing to fear from the placid Maple Leafs, who’ve made passive resistance their signature modus operandi. Catch me if you can is skills-first Toronto’s mantra.

Turns out the Leafs had to fear Flames-thrower Tkachuk as shootout hero rather than run-amok crusher.

While Toronto managed to force overtime with a nifty power-play goal from William Nylander at 8:35 of the third period — deftly tipping a John Tavares shot — and Freddie Andersen came up acrobatically stupendous in the exceptionally entertaining extra five minutes, Toronto clanged in the shootout epilogue against Calgary: Jason Spezza, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner came-a-cropper. That’s a 1-4 record for the Leafs in shootouts this year, as Toronto fell 2-1.

For the Flames, a perfect 5-0 record, with Tkachuk the only shooter to beat Andersen, the only conversion that mattered Thursday night. Five-hole.

He didn’t have a plan.

“I just went down there and just did what I did. Didn’t have anything in mind. I didn’t see really anything open with him. He’s a big goalie, doesn’t give you much. So I just tried to freeze him, put it on the ice.’’

A nearly even 68-shot evening, all-star versus all-star between four pipes, David Rittich getting the wee better of Andersen.

The Leafs, rallying, will take the one point and regret the one point not taken. But honestly, Tkachuk — even on a relatively quiet night, a conservative two hits thrown, took scarcely an abrasive swipe at any of the local lads — has been the spiciest story of the week. The stiffly corseted NHL could do with more spice. And sass.

Grade-A agitator Tkachuk — all hard-hitting thump, no walloping punch — arrived in town trailing residue of unmanly disrepute. For getting his face pummeled by Zack Kassian’s fists. Two-game suspension for the Oiler, cast as goony in what now passes for roughneck hockey.

Because in Calgary last Saturday — throwback to the Battle of Alberta era, when that meant there would be blood — Kassian had a bellyful of Tkachuk’s targeted, arguably blindsided (“predatory,” Kassian said) hits. And after the third thud, he erupted with a flurry of southpaw haymakers while Tkachuk meekly turtled, literally burying his head in his hands as blows rained down. Would not engage.

In meting out discipline, the NHL’s department of player safely put it thusly: Tkachuk was an “unwilling combatant.”

He’s merely a willing provocateur, old school, which isn’t a bad thing in the soft-contact NHL. Of a higher order, though, given his undisputed talents — leading the Flames in points and all-star anointed. Leading in chirps, too, a yammer jammer. Even had jabbing words on this occasion with former London Knights teammate Marner, after hours earlier singing his praises.

“What a fun time it was playing with him in London and to see him evolve in the NHL, especially this year. Him along with Auston are two of the best, not just young offensive players in the league, but two of the best offensive players. I got to play with both of them (Matthews with the U.S. program), so pretty cool.”

Nickel ’n’ dime stuff, Tkachuk’s physical impact on Thursday. Scrummy. Pity.

The bone-cruncher hit, his upside forte, is sadly headed for extinction. Few revel in it anymore. Fewer still have much tolerance for it. Players seem genuinely indignant when lined up for bang.

“If he doesn’t want to get hit, stay off the tracks,” Tkachuk had sneered of Kassian, albeit from a safe distance.

Perhaps all those punches Kassian landed affected Tkachuk’s IQ. Why, goodness, he could scarcely comprehend the thrust of media questions earlier in the day when the local hockey bureau tried, unsuccessfully, to lure him into revisiting the incident.

Hey Matthew, fair to say your old teammate and good buddy Matthews is wise to your tricks, like he’d joked the other day? So no use trying it on with him, if the thought had even crossed your mind?

Tkachuk: “I don’t really know what that means.”

Hey Matthew, safe to say you want to pour cold water on everything with Edmonton right now?

Tkachuk: “I don’t really know what that means either.”

Hey Matthew, do you enjoy the reputation you’ve carved out for yourself as thorn-in-the-side instigator who refuses to answer the bell when challenged?

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Tkachuk: “I don’t … I don’t …’’

Reporter: “Wait, are you going to say you don’t know what that means?”

Tkachuk, the boy with the curl, all innocence: “No, I don’t want to talk about that now. We’ll talk about it another time. We’ll just talk about the Leafs right now.”

As it happens, the Leafs weren’t so keen on discussing the Tkachuk-Kassian affair, either. To be fair, not their fight. Not that they would ever drop a glove in anger, of course.

“I know what you’re doing right now and you’re not going to get a reaction from me,’’ said American compatriot Justin Holl, with a grin, when asked if the Leafs had discussed how to prepare for Tkachuk-style mayhem. “Honestly, I don’t know whose side to take in that whole situation. I’m just going to let them hash it out and I’ll play my game.”

Spezza struck an almost bemused tone, observing that the whole dust-up would have been just a fart in a mitten in times gone by. “If you talk to guys that played 10, 15 years ago, those scrums happened every night. There was a lot more bad blood in the league. There was a lot more carryover from series. The fact that it gets that much attention now …”

It’s an anomaly, of course. Fights are freakish circa 2020. This NHL would rather forget its rock-’em, sock-’em bloodlines, erase all those fighting majors from the memory bank if not the record annals.

“There’s less guys like that,’’ Spezza continued. “Less guys coming up that way so that’s probably why.’’ Not the version of toughness that gets a foot in the big-league door.

“But there are still lots of agitators around the league. He’s a combination of high-end skill and being able to do that. A unique player for sure.”

The Leafs don’t need to indulge in prehistoric hockey man nature. They’ll win with flair and flash, they insist, although that remains to be seen when the going gets crunchy. Say, in the post-season against a bruising physical opponent.

“We’re a team that is good when emotion gets into our game,’’ Spezza added. “But we don’t get distracted by guys. The makeup of our locker room is not one that’s going to get too fazed by a particular guy. We haven’t had any problem with guys coming in to agitate us.”

As for Kassian, allegedly the true bad guy in this contretemps?

“I’d do it all over again.”

Maybe even in their teams’ Jan. 29 rematch.

“He messed with the wrong guy. I have a great memory.’’

How distasteful, no? Meanwhile, the Leafs will otherwise entertain you.

Rosie DiManno
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

TORONTO STAR