CALGARY — Oh boy, how we’ve missed you, Battle of Alberta.
Fast, crisp, 4-3 hockey.
Big, edgy hits, with great quotes post-game.
And a hell of a fight… Oh, wait.
“He’s just a young punk that has to figure that aspect out in the game,” Edmonton’s Zack Kassian said of Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, after another Flames-Oilers game where Tkachuk played uber-physical yet refused an invitation to fight. “It’s sad because he’s a pretty good player but he’s a (expletive).”
The truth is, Tkachuk is exactly what this latent rivalry has lacked for so long — a skating, hitting, turtling stick of dynamite that ignited the Battle of Alberta once again on Saturday. He tracked down Kassian in the first period and labelled him, sending Kassian’s helmet flying.
Then Tkachuk took a long, hard run at the Oilers winger in the second period, as Kassian came around the net and was engaged with a Flames defenceman. Kassian insisted he had no problem with being hit hard — “I love that stuff!” — but frowned on the fact Tkachuk would not engage him in a fight after the second hit.
“If you’re going to hit like that you have to answer the bell every once in a while. Especially one, two, three in the game,” said Kassian. “In the third he followed me into the corner, right? He’s clearly trying to target me, which I like. I’m standing here. I love that stuff.”
Kassian likes Tkachuk’s game — who doesn’t? He doesn’t approve of Tkachuk’s unwillingness to fight, questioning Tkachuk’s courage with a euphemism that has replaced the word “chicken” in the hockey vocabulary.
“It’s sad because he’s a pretty good player but he’s a (expletive), to be honest. Straight up. That’s the definition of it. Wouldn’t fight me two years ago. Said I was a fourth-liner. Now I have 13 goals.
“What’s the excuse now?”
The worst part for Edmonton? Kassian received a double-minor, the Flames made it 4-3 with a power-play goal 39 seconds into the third period, and the Oilers couldn’t muster another goal.
So, Dave Tippett, should Kassian have come up swinging after that hit?
“I’d like to see him get a number,” the Oilers head coach said. “You’re in a tight game, it’s 3-3, get a number and deal with it later. Deal with winning the game.”
Then he added. “I wish we could have killed the penalty for him.”
There won’t be a player on this Oilers team who will speak ill of Kassian, a player who protects all of them on the few occasions such actions are required in today’s game. Now, as Tkachuk shows us, pretty much everything we’ve come to know about honour among big men is nonexistent in today’s NHL.
What are our thoughts? Glad you asked.
The hit that caused Kassian to come up swinging is sneaky dirty — which we are fine with, because it didn’t injure anyone. But when you track a player coming around the net, who is engaged with a checker, and you meet him on the other side with a huge hit, well, that is a hit the league has actively tried to remove from the game.
“It’s like Raffi Torres-style,” Kassian said. “If you’re going to hit like that you have to answer the bell once and a while. I’m not the first guy to say that.”
Personally? I’m fine with the hit, despite the league’s wishes. It wasn’t a head shot and Tkachuk didn’t leave his feet.
But if you’re going to throw the hit, and continually label the biggest man on opposition, one should engage that player when he comes up fighting.
If you want any respect from your fellow players, that is.
Or the referees, who declined to throw Kassian out of the game because they know the game within the game. Or the linesmen, who allowed Kassian to rag-doll Tkachuk, raining 10 unanswered punches on the Flames winger while he tried to protect his head, gloves cemented on.
“I’d have liked to have seen the linesmen get in there a little earlier,” said Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward.
He’d never say it, but we’re betting he wouldn’t mind seeing his young gun show a little more honour. But whatever — the Battle of Alberta has always been at its best when no one cares about honour or codes, or what anyone on the other team thinks about them.
The offshoot of all this was the most emotional Edmonton-Calgary game in ages, or since the last time Tkachuk stirred things up and turtled.
Now, the run-up to a pair of games on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1 will be pure gold.
It’s back, baby. The Battle is back.