“I don’t think anything will stop him.”
That was the sentiment from co-captain Christian Dvorak, as the London Knights’ Matthew Tkachuk was praised to no end by his teammates on Saturday evening. The Knights won Game Two of their OHL Championship Series, with a 6-1 drubbing of the Niagara IceDogs. Tkachuk stole the show, recording a hat trick (his third of the playoffs) plus an extra assist in one of the most impressive individual performances in recent playoff memory.
London now leads the series 2-0, and the IceDogs look as dejected as ever.
Tkachuk appeared to injure his ankle on the first goal (which tied the game at one), and was helped off the ice by his teammates. When he did come back in the second period, he continued to favour his left leg, taking shorter strides than usual. Nonetheless, he was as eager as ever to crash the net, and was rewarded again; a beautiful tip off Olli Juolevi’s shot put the Knights ahead (for good), 2-1.
“It’s a one-one game, I’m not going to go out that easy,” said Tkachuk with a grin after the game, explaining his quick return. “You can’t give up on your teammates like that, they’re all working hard for you so you have to try and do the same for them.”
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) May 8, 2016
His was the type of heroic performance that will be remembered when the Knights look back on this dominant season. It seemed unlikely Tkachuk would even see the ice again in Game Two, let alone take control and completely dominate one of the hottest teams in hockey.
“I knew what kind of a warrior he is,” shrugged Mitch Marner, Tkachuk’s opposite winger. “[That’s] what he tries to be every game, so I knew he was going to be back.”
“That’s the kind of player and person he is,” Dvorak pointed out.
Neither Tkachuk nor Knights coach Dale Hunter would comment on the nature of his injury, nor how he was able to return so quickly. Regardless, there’s no question he was playing through a lot of pain throughout. His entire line was kept off the ice for most of the third period, once they’d secured a 6-1 lead and chased Niagara’s highly-touted goalie Alex Nedeljkovic.
This isn’t the first time Tkachuk has battled adversity recently, either. Before Game Three of London’s first round series with the Owen Sound Attack, he learned of the passing of his billet mom Susan Martellotti. The tragic news pushed him to a two-goal performance in that game, followed by four goals in the next just a couple days later.
Tkachuk has demonstrated time and again his ability to play through hard times. A physical ankle injury is a different kind of pain of course, but nevertheless his tenacity is something to be marvelled at.
Sometimes slightly overshadowed by his linemate Marner, Tkachuk has been an unstoppable force in this playoff run for London. He’s scored 39 points in 16 games, which is astonishing – just not as astonishing as Marner’s 41.
As a draft-eligible player, all season dozens of NHL scouts have had their eyes trained on Tkachuk – who has been watched from an early age as the son of an NHL legend in his father Keith. His ranking fluctuates, typically near the top five. Central Scouting ranked him second among North American skaters – just behind Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton (QMJHL) – which projects him to go fifth overall.
He’s earned the ranking, too. He does play on the best line in junior hockey, with Marner and Dvorak, but 107 points in 57 games as an OHL rookie is nothing to sniff at. Tkachuk learned to adapt to his new role in London almost immediately upon arriving, and has been clicking with his linemates ever since.
Tkachuk spent the previous two years in the U.S. National Team Development Program, a route growing in popularity among American players in recent years. Born in Scottsdale, Arizona (a trait he shares with Auston Matthews), and growing up in St. Louis, the Ontario Hockey League wasn’t as attractive an option at first as it might have been for a player from Canada.
However, he made the jump to Canadian major junior this season, and he’s been reaping the benefits ever since.
Often compared to his father, Matthew Tkachuk is a player most NHL coaches will love. He’s tough, and loves to get into battles both in front of the net and in the corners. He plays the agitator role admirably as well, as he showed in London’s conference final series against the Erie Otters when he neutralized their captain Dylan Strome by getting under his skin.
In addition to the gritty, physical game, Tkachuk clearly has heaps of offensive talent to boot – just look at his numbers from this year. He can skate well, and send clean passes to his linemates to generate offence.
Ultimately, Tkachuk is one of the most important pieces of a team that’s torching every team they come across. The Knights are up 2-0 on the Niagara IceDogs now, and show no signs of stopping. There’s a good chance at this point that they’ll find themselves in the Memorial Cup tournament, where Tkachuk’s physical-yet-offensive edge will be key to taking down potential opponents like the Brandon Wheat Kings.
They do have to get through the IceDogs first though, to win the OHL Championship.
Niagara is already frustrated, with Tkachuk as well as the rest of the Knights. Vince Dunn, the team’s most important defenceman, has been provoked into boneheaded outbursts like this:
Vince Dunn unhappy with the refs after a goal… and, uh, does this: pic.twitter.com/HmM5Q8lTyI
— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) May 8, 2016
Tempers are boiling over, even among off-ice staff who have come into conflict several times over the first two games of this series. The next two back in St. Catharines will be fascinating to see how they play out, and whether Tkachuk is affected by the lingering foot injury that bothered him even as the final buzzer went on Saturday.
Whatever happens, this playoff run has done nothing but good things for Matthew Tkachuk’s future.
Read more about the London Knights’ Matthew Tkachuk in LWOS’s draft scouting report here, courtesy of Ben Kerr.