Flames draw first blood

EDMONTON — One of the Winnipeg Jets’ best players was writhing in pain on the ice.

One of the Calgary Flames’ best players was being accused by the opposition of a dirty deed.

Barely five minutes into this Stanley Cup qualification series, the animosity had already been ratcheted up several notches.

Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t even penalized on the play — so the referees apparently didn’t see any malice — and his Flames ultimately celebrated a 4-1 victory to draw first blood in this best-of-five play-in.

Mark Scheifele, meanwhile, wasn’t putting any weight on his left leg as he was helped to the locker-rooms at an empty Rogers Place and he never did return.

With little separating these two teams on paper, a significant injury to their first-line centre and co-scoring leader from this past winter might be tough for the Jets to overcome.

There were plenty of questions for the Flames heading into the NHL’s summer restart, and several were answered — at least, in part — in their first meaningful battle in the bubble.

Who would be between the pipes as Calgary’s go-to goalie? Cam Talbot earned that nod, and the 33-year-old spared his coach any second-guessing with a 17-save performance behind a solid defensive showing.

Would Johnny Gaudreau, endlessly criticized for his failure to produce in his past two trips to the playoffs, be a factor when it mattered most? He was, tucking the tying tally during a second-period power-play.

Could the Flames find a way to put a few pucks behind Vezina Trophy frontrunner Connor Hellebuyck? They did. Three times, before a late empty-netter.

Tobias Rieder and Mikael Backlund also fooled the stalwart netminder, who still finished with 29 stops on a busy night.

One question, of course, will be bandied about for the next 24-plus hours, with Game 2 being a Monday matinee (12:30 p.m. MT, Sportsnet/Sportsnet 960 The Fan).

Was Tkachuk up to no good when he hit Scheifele along the boards early in the contest? It seems like a stretch to make that case.

On just his third shift of the night, Scheifele had crossed the blue-line into enemy territory, dumped the puck into the corner and peeled back, likely looking for a line change.

Tkachuk, who had been in pursuit, efforted to finish his check.

It seemed like an innocent collision, a routine play, but Scheifele was suddenly down in a heap, clutching his left leg. You could even hear somebody ask if a stretcher was needed.

As their training staff raced onto the ice, the Jets immediately were accusing Tkachuk of bad business.

In an empty Rogers Place, you could hear Winnipeg’s coach, Paul Maurice, barking at the Flames’ alternate captain, shouting several times that he’d “kicked the back of his (bleeping) legs out.”

There does appear to be some contact between Tkachuk’s right skate and Scheifele’s left leg on the replays, but it certainly doesn’t look like some sort of cheap-shot. Then again, the 22-year-old left-winger has a reputation and past suspensions on his rap-sheet, so some won’t be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Tkachuk, who led his team with 61 points this past winter, soon after scrapped with opposing captain Blake Wheeler.

So call it settled? Doubtful.

The Jets can’t afford to be side-tracked seeking some sort of revenge. They now need to win three of four to advance.

The Flames will be reminded that they looked like world-beaters in their playoff opener last spring. They stunk for the next four en route to an embarrassingly early exit.

This is another strong start, though.

Andrew Copp put the first ink on Saturday’s scoresheet, going glove-side with a one-timer, but the Flames took charge in the middle stanza.

With Nathan Beaulieu serving a two-minute sentence for slashing, Gaudreau managed to corral a bouncing pass from his BFF, Sean Monahan, near the right post and gained control just in time to shovel it past Hellebuyck.

For Johnny Hockey, it was his first post-season snipe since 2015. He jumped into Tkachuk’s arms to celebrate. One goal won’t silence the naysayers, but it’s absolutely a step in the right direction.

Calgary’s special-teamers struck again less than six minutes later … but not one of the guys you’d be expecting.

Rieder escaped on a shorthanded breakaway — a clearing attempt had squeaked past Josh Morrissey as he tried to hold the blue-line — and finished on a dandy deke to his backhand.

Before the end of the middle frame, which saw the Flames pepper Hellebuyck with 18 shots, Backlund picked the top corner on the blocker-side.

Andrew Mangiapane sealed the Game 1 victory with an empty-netter.

There could be more injury issues for the Jets, with winger Patrik Laine — a key piece on their power-play — logging only three shifts in the third.

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Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

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