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Rookie trio in spotlight tonight in Toronto

Matthew Tkachuk, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthew's play this season is a hot topic heading into tonight's game

by TORIE PETERSON @ToriePeterson /

TORONTO - When Matthew Tkachuk managed to get a hold of San Jose Sharks' Brent Burns stick and casually lugged into the Calgary Flames bench earlier this month, Mitch Marner wasn't surprised.

After all, he played on a line with Tkachuk throughout the course of their 2015-16 Memorial Cup-winning season with the London Knights.

He had an up-close-and-personal view of Tkachuk's agitator antics.

"I did see that. I've seen him do that a couple of times," Marner chuckled. "Maybe not steal into a bench but I've definitely seen him steal sticks out of guys' hands last year.

"That's the kind of guy he is. He's competitive and he likes to get under guys skin - especially guys that do a lot on the ice. He's a guy that's great to have on your team and he's not the best to play against."

Also not surprised? Auston Matthews, Tkachuk's long-time teammate during their U.S. Hockey National Development Program days.

"I actually saw him last night and he told me he actually asked for his stick after the game, after he stole it from him," Matthews noted after the Leafs' pre-game skate. "It's just the type of stuff he likes to do. You just can't let it bother you."

While close friends off the ice, Marner and Matthews after expecting the same type of game from their fellow rookie this evening.

They know how competitive Tkachuk is when he hits the ice and their experiences with him over the years has them prepared for his in-your-face, instigating style of play - no matter what the score is or what the situation may be.

"We were up like 6-something and he was still getting in people's faces and drawing penalties," Marner recalled from their days with the Knights. "I think he drew a five minute penalty and then the next shift, he drew another two minutes. That's just the kind of guy he is."

"He's obviously got a lot of skill and he plays hard. He's always in people's faces. When you can do both, it's pretty annoying to play against. It's usually just one of those things … he does it very well and he's very sneaky with it as well. I think it's just the fact that people just don't like the feeling of him always around them."

While Marner and Tkachuk played one season together in London, the Flames' rookie and Matthews' history dates back to their pre-teen years, making this year's season series between the Flames and Leafs very special for the pair of 2016 first round draft picks.

"It's a guy who I played with on a line for many years - World Juniors, NJDP, national team, U18's, U17's - so I look forward to (it) ... I miss playing with him. Obviously it was fun back then, playing with him," Tkachuk said.

"It's fun keeping tabs on him, seeing him on TSN and Sportsnet. Every night I look, he's doing something special. I'm excited to play against him."

Matthews currently leads all rookies in scoring with 22 goals and 38 points through 44 games. Containing the explosive centreman will be key this evening and it could be Tkachuk's job to help quell Matthews' line.

Tkachuk, along with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, have been tasked with playing a shutdown role this season - a role he would relish tonight against his old friend.

"A guy like that you can't really contain You've just got to make sure there are a lot of bodies around him and have a good stick ... you've got to stay above him. You have to stay above guys like him, McDavid, Crosby. They're the best players in the world and you've got to stay above him and limit the chances.

"It's fun. It's going to be a ... big stage in Toronto. It's my first time playing in Toronto so I'm excited for it."

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