When the final buzzer went on the last meeting between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames, Jake Muzzin flipped the puck at Matthew Tkachuk’s chest, Tkachuk flipped a lid and the Flames’ solid start got flipped on its head.
Now the Flames can’t seem to do a flipping thing right.
Mired in a three-game losing streak that has raised all-too-familiar questions about the team’s character, work ethic and coaching, the sixth-placed Flames are in search of a spark to rally a sagging squad.
On Saturday, he backed up his pregame promise to do what he could to drag the team back into the fight, leading the team in hits, shots and emotion despite the absence of Zack Kassian in the Edmonton Oilers lineup as a target.
Team engagement wasn’t an issue that night. The 7-1 loss was.
The Leafs announced Muzzin won’t be in the lineup Monday night due to a facial fracture, ending the possibility any lingering frustration from the flip could inject emotion into the Flames’ repertoire.
Shortly after the Flames’ two losses to the Leafs, the team held a players-only meeting in Montreal that has produced disturbing yet unsubstantiated whispers that Tkachuk was urged to tone things down.
If, in fact, the heartbeat and future captain of this team was told anything of the sort it would explain why the Flames are where they are.
This team needs more players to get their noses dirty and exhibit a hatred for losing, not less.
From that meeting three weeks ago until Saturday, Tkachuk’s presence had been noticeably muted.
His 5.2 shot per game average pre-meeting slid to half of that before Saturday’s seven-shot effort.
People have long been led to believe this team goes as Johnny Gaudreau goes.
When Tkachuk is fully engaged offensively and otherwise, the Flames often benefit.
He, like no other player on this roster, can drag his team into the battle.
If a player suggested he should stop doing so, that player should be the first on the list of changes this team needs to make.
Emotion wasn’t an issue Saturday in Edmonton where Tkachuk spearheaded a much more lively group that has to be even more discouraged after having a solid effort turn into a thrashing.
Connor McDavid’s five-point game saw him exploit the type of defensive lapses Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are now poised to feast on again.
“If we don’t play better – one of our best games of the season – it’s going to be a tough night for us,” said Elias Lindholm of Monday night’s matchup in Toronto against the league-leading Leafs.
“They’re probably the best line in this league right now and for the whole season. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. Our forecheck needs to get back to what it was last season. We know we have a good group in there and we added few key pieces and had a good (playoff showing).
It’s tough when you know it’s in there and we can’t show it. it’s frustrating.”
One of those key additions was goalie Jacob Markstrom, who will get the start despite being pulled after allowing five goals in each of his last two starts. Prior to that, he has been the Flames’ MVP, which makes him the obvious starter to try turning things around.
Sean Monahan skated with the team in the morning and will likely return to the lineup following a two-game absence, while defenceman Oliver Kylington will draw in for his first NHL game since Feb 23, 2020.
The Leafs’ top six will be without Zach Hyman and Joe Thornton.
“No one can feel comfortable right now – no one is playing their best hockey,” said Gaudreau, whose first-period struggles have led to the team being outscored 14-3 its last three games.
“We have a good group of guys, a really skilled team and we just have to put 60 minutes together. I can’t even remember the last time we started a first period or a game with a lead.
It’s nothing we really talk about or are concerned about. We’ve got to come together as a team and try not to put the blame on one another and play a really good game.”
For the record, it was six games ago the Flames last scored first.
Perhaps flipping the script on that dubious streak would be a good start.