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Tkachuk making strong case to stay in Calgary

An impressive pre-season performance by Matthew Tkachuk could net a starting NHL role

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH / CalgaryFlames.com

CALGARY, AB -- Maybe it's on the way to becoming a trademark.

A la Air Jordan's tongue-loll, as he elevated majestically to the rim.

Or Mike Singletary's eyes, two laser pinpricks in a backdrop of white.

Gary Player all in black. Or Gretzky's signature jersey-tuck into his hockey pants.

So what on earth is the deal with Matthew Tkachuk's mouthguard anyway?

The darn things seems to be everywhere but … in his mouth.

Sticking up here, jutting out there, clenched between the teeth its been designed to protect, hanging precariously.

"Some of management actually brought that to my attention earlier in camp,'' admitted Tkachuk ruefully, "but I respectfully I told them 'I'll try (to keep it in) as much as possible but it's a habit I've had since I was young.'

"I didn't really, uh, know it was that obvious. But people are talking about it."

Pretty tough to miss. Particularly if you happen to be out there, playing pitch and catch with him.

"I know it seems every time I look, he's picking it up off the ice,'' joked Tkachuk's centreman, Sam Bennett.

"But whatever works, right?"

Oh, it's working, all right. Pretty much everything is at the moment for the 18-year-old.

Wednesday night, Tkachuk made another bold statement to stay put, cashing the game-opening strike and a shootout winner to boot as the Calgary Flames edged past the Arizona Coyotes 2-1.

With one pre-season tilt left on the docket, he's done everything in his power to get the thumbs up.

 It's difficult to see him not at least opening the regular campaign here.

"Gully,'' said Tkachuk, "has put me in a position to succeed, so I'm playing with a lot of great players. I enjoy these tight games, low scoring games, where scoring chances are hard to come by."

Yessir, mouthguard in or out, Keith's kid is making it awful hard on the Flames to ship him back to day care for another term.

He's belongs here, with the adults.

"That's what he wants to do. That was his goal coming into camp,'' said goaltender Brian Elliott.

"This is a guy who's been around NHL locker rooms his whole life, his dad being such a good pro and such a leader.

"And I think you learn by osmosis.

"So when he comes into a locker room, he knows how it's supposed to go, he knows how he's supposed to act, and that's huge."

Video: Post-Game Recap - Flames 2, Coyotes 1 (SO)

In a camp missing both Johnny and Mony, the 18-year-old, No. 6 draft pick out of the OHL London, has stepped confidently in and filled the excitement void.

Tkachuk, Troy Brouwer and Bennett have formed a highly-effective line, Calgary's most consistently impactful, one that certainly wouldn't be out of place on opening night, up north in Edmonton next Wednesday.

"Right from the moment he got here, he's played hard every shift,'' lauded coach Glen Gulutzan.

"You can certainly see the talent in Matthew. He's a real good kid, a tenacious worker that comes from the bloodlines.

"My experience with young players trying to come in and stay in the league, it really is a day-by-day thing. And we'll keep evaluating, but he's passing tests day after day."
In the shootout, both Mikael Backlund and Bennett had been denied before Tkachuk stepped up, sailed in and picked a spot cool-as-you-please on 'Yotes' goaltender Mike Smith.

Not that he's had a lot of practice in the art lately.

"Last year,'' Tkachuk admitted, "I think we went into one shootout and I missed.

"So I haven't scored a shootout goal in a couple of years."

The decision to throw him out there with the game on his stick came down to a hunch on Gulutzan's part.

"A gut feeling. He had a good game, he was around it. He didn't get out on the 4-on-3 at the end, I looked at the bench, had a couple guys in mind, had a feeling."

As Gulutzan said, Tkachuk certainly was "around it", all night long.

Video: Post-Game: Matthew Tkachuk

First period, he drifts into a soft spot in the Coyote D-zone coverage, sliding into open space to sizzle a Bennett pass behind Smith for his second goal of pre-season.

Later on, as Bennett cuts hard into the middle of the ice to unleash a backhand, there's Tkachuk, practically sitting in Smith's lap, drawing the attention, and ire, of a pack of Coyotes.

Those outstanding offensive plays were balanced off by fine defensive effort, Bennett caught over-handling the puck, the teenager hustling back to get inside position and steer Arizona left-winger Lawson Crouse wide and out of harm's way. 

Officially: The goal, the shootout decider, four shots, 16:47 of ice time. But he's one of those guys whose influence goes beyond numbers.

From the outside looking in, he's only gained in belief since this adventure began.

"I think so,'' conceded Tkachuk. "It's all about my work ethic and all about competing.
"If I'm doing those things, I think I can be effective."

Sam Bennett, of course, has gone the route before; the high pick bucking to crack the big-league lineup and stick in The Show as a teenager.

He understands the inner pressures, the fluctuating emotions, the effort and attention to detail required to make that aim a reality.

"Confidence,'' he stressed, "is key in this league. Every game he's looked better, more confident and that's huge for him.

"Matt's mindset is the same as mine in the first year. I know what's feeling and the transition involved.

"He's got a great attitude. He's a great player. He wants to make this team, that's the No. 1 goal."

A small smile.

"And I'd say he's making a pretty good case for himself right now."

Ain't that the truth.

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