Leafs need to find an answer for Matthew Tkachuk: 'The heart and soul of that team'
TORONTO — The Maple Leafs are quickly learning the same hard lesson taught to the Presidents' Trophy winners.
Matthew Tkachuk is a problem.
The Florida Panthers winger — a mix of speed, skill, tenacity and grit that makes him unicorn by today's NHL standards — was a massive factor in his team's stunning upset of the record-setting Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
Tkachuk picked up where he left off in Game 1 of the post-season's second act Tuesday with three assists and the most hits of any player with nine. He also took his fair share of abuse from Toronto's defence corps, and was seemingly in the action at every turn in Florida's 4-2 victory.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe listed off the dangers Tkachuk posed ahead of the series opener, including the 25-year-old's ability off the rush, along the boards, behind the net and around the crease.
He showed all of that in the opener against the Atlantic Division's No. 2 seed.
And Toronto knows finding a solution for a player who led the NHL playoffs in scoring with 14 points heading into Wednesday's action is crucial.
"Super-competitive guy," Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano said of his former teammate with the Calgary Flames. "Wins a lot of 50/50 pucks. We've got to be hard against him.
"He's playing with a lot of confidence. We've got to really get in his face."
Toronto centre Auston Matthews suited up alongside Tkachuk at the U.S. National Team Development Program when both were teenagers.
"His game has always been how he plays," said Matthews, whose club will look to respond in Game 2 of the best-of-seven series Thursday. "He plays with a lot of intensity, plays on the edge. He's always in front of the net. He's a heavy body down low.
"You've got to respect that, but at the same time, not respect that too much and make it a little bit harder on him."
It's also not just Tkachuk — tied for sixth in NHL regular-season NHL scoring with 109 points — the Leafs have to worry about.
Linemate and local product Sam Bennett registered a goal and an assist to go along with four hits in Game 1, while Nick Cousins also scored for a combined six-point night.
Keefe said his team needs to get that line playing on Florida's half of the ice more often after the Panthers did the same thing to the 65-win Bruins with a relentless forecheck in a jaw-dropping comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
"They get momentum, they get life, they get energy," Keefe said. "It really fuels the rest of their team.
"Those guys were really good (in Game 1). We allowed them to be even better than what we would have expected."
At times earlier in his career, Tkachuk was prone to grabbing headlines for the wrong reasons thanks to some questionable on-ice antics and battles in the media with opponents.
Panthers head coach Paul Maurice, who saw plenty of Tkachuk from afar during his tenure with the Winnipeg Jets, said the player realized at beginning of January how important it is for him to be on the ice — and not the penalty box.
"His reputation doesn't match his last 40 games," Maurice said. "His game's just pure production and compete.
"He's pretty good."
The veteran coach was also floored by the person he met in Florida following last summer's trade with Calgary.
"It's his personality that shocked the hell out of me," Maurice said after Tuesday's game. "This is Winnipeg-Calgary, right? I didn't say very nice things about this young man. I don't talk to players on the bench, but if he could hear what I was thinking, it wasn't very kind.
"The first week he gets down (to Florida) he takes all the trainers out. It's real ... the way he treats the bus driver, the flight attendants. He is the exact opposite of what you see on the ice."
The Leafs, however, need to deal with that version of Tkachuk — and fast.
"An effective player," Matthews said. "He's the heart and soul of that team."
FINDING THE RANGE
Leafs winger William Nylander put up a career-high 40 goals in the regular season, but hasn't scored since Game 2 of the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Had a few chances," he said of the opener with Florida that saw him direct seven shots on target. "Just need to capitalize."
Toronto captain John Tavares said the message is to keep shooting.
"He's still making things happen and being dynamic and using his feet, earning pucks and creating space and looks," Tavares said. "That's when you know he's got good habits building.
"He's too good not to eventually have those find the net."
START ON TIME
The Leafs were second out of the starting blocks in five of six games in the Tampa series.
The trend continued against Florida after Toronto two power plays failed to connect Tuesday despite some good looks.
"It's hard to dig yourself out of holes sometimes, especially this time of year when things are so tight," Matthews said.
"Coming out with more urgency and more pace to start games, and not having to climb out of a hole early, will benefit us."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press