Flames, Oilers add classic chapter to Battle of Alberta lore

Sean Monahan scored on Mike Smith in the shootout and the Calgary Flames defeated the Edmonton Oilers.

EDMONTON – It was the perfect resolution.

Everybody won.

Late in the first period of the most anticipated game of the NHL season, Matthew Tkachuk gave Zack Kassian, the fans, and the hockey establishment exactly what it wanted.

A fight.

With Kassian.

The winner: hockey.

Less than a minute after lightweights Sean Monahan and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins provided a shocking undercard to get the joint jumping, Tkachuk and Kassian dropped the gloves after a brief discussion before the draw.

In less time than it takes to ride a bull, the two wrapped up a spirited exchange that saw Tkachuk off balance after missing with an opening right. Five furious lefts from Kassian failed to do any damage, ending the tilt with a respectful nod of approval from the big Oiler.

Turtle no more.

"It had nothing to do with the hits, or anything like that — I just didn’t like getting pummeled at home like I did," said Tkachuk, referring to the Jan. 11 beating he received from Kassian, without a response. "A lot of people didn’t want me to do it, but I wanted to.

"It was just kind of a way for me to stick up for myself, it wasn’t about owing anybody, or anything. I was doing it for myself."

With his eighth NHL fight, Tkachuk earned plenty of respect back from detractors, namely Kassian.

"He wanted to fight right away, but I wanted to keep him guessing a little bit," said Kassian in a dressing room quieted by a 4-3 shootout loss. "But I respect him for that, and I told him before we even dropped the gloves. Now it’s over. I wish that would have happened in the first place, then it would have been done."

Both confirmed afterwards Tkachuk wanted to get the fight out of the way earlier.

"First shift, yeah," said Kassian.

"But I kind of wanted to do it on my terms, make him wait. Think about it for a little bit. That’s the game within the game. I just told him, ‘It’ll come. Just wait for it.’ He wanted to get it over quick. I always said he was a good player. I respect him for stepping up to the plate like that."

Equally as important for Tkachuk is the fact he avoided injury while once again demonstrating his high hockey IQ.

His teammates ate it up, as did a full house at Rogers Place that was peppered with fans in full-sized turtle costumes complete with oversized mouthpieces.

Hopefully for them they were rentals, not purchases.

Chants of "Turtle, Turtle," that preceded the affair turned to roars of approval once the fights began.

Everyone came out grinning.

Kassian showed solid restraint to wait for the bout, held off on a complete beatdown and punctuated the scrap with a classy gesture that puts a wrap on the issue.

League disciplinarian George Parros had to be happy with the display in front of him, as the fights weren’t scripted, the hits were clean and the temperature of the rivalry wound up plummeting like an Alberta sunset.

Fans on both sides of Red Deer got what they wanted, as did the league, which cashed in on a ratings bonanza some worried wouldn’t live up to the hype.

It surpassed it.

In a 90-second span late in the first period the fans were treated to a buffet of brilliance:

• Connor McDavid went old school by deftly splitting defencemen Travis Hamonic and Noah Hanifin to speed in alone on David Rittich, who made a brilliant pad save.

• A Monahan blast from the slot trickled through Mike Smith, resting mere millimetres from crossing the goal line fully before Nugent-Hopkins cleared the puck.

• Monahan fought Nugent-Hopkins, followed by the Tkachuk atonement.

Who knows, it may wind up being the last fight this battle sees in months, if not years, as the two teams focused on the two points the division rivals so desperately wanted for the rest of the game.

In the end, the Flames got them thanks to a Monahan goal that set the stage for Rittich’s saves on Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and the help of a post on McDavid.

Andrew Mangiapane’s two goals, a game-opening goal by Elias Lindholm and 31 saves by Rittich paced the visitors.

The goalie punctuated the game-saving poke-check on Draisaitl with a Jose Bautista-type stick toss before being mobbed by teammates.

On three separate occasions the Oilers battled back to send it into extra time thanks to goals from Kailer Yamamoto, Alex Chiasson and Matt Benning.

The Flames have now won all three provincial meetings this year to sit two up on the Oilers, who visit Calgary on Saturday.

"Honestly, right now I just want to go home and go to bed," said Tkachuk when asked if he was looking forward to the rematch.

The vitriol is gone, for now, as is the need for Parros to attend the game, as promised. You can bet he still will, as this rivalry is clearly capable of taking turns few see coming, such as Benning’s all-world, game-tying goal.

The targeted blasts by Tkachuk that prompted Kassian to rag doll him on Jan. 11 have been answered to.

"I didn’t even know it wasn’t settled," said Tkachuk, still playing it coy. "It’s just two good teams going at it. It was a great atmosphere in here."

Everyone can feel better about moving forward with a rivalry that may very well be known for the next several years for its skill more than brawn.

Fitting for a game that opened with Warrant Officer Renee Gauthier interrupting the ceremonial faceoff on Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night by surprising her young son with her emotional return from deployment.

Tears, hugs and goosebumps ensued.

Fights followed.

Sanity — and some great hockey — prevailed.

The legend of the Battle of Alberta grows.

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