Battle of Alberta’s next chapter likely lost in new playoff format

Watch as tensions boil over between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, resulting in a big brawl and a goalie fight between Mike Smith and Cam Talbot.

As enticing as a Winnipeg-Calgary play-in series will be, it’s not the all-Canadian matchup hockey fans were hoping for.

They want the Battle of Alberta to return for the first time since 1991.

And while the creative, 24-team playoff structure has plenty of merit and storylines, it drastically reduces the chances that hockey’s most delicious rivalry will be revisited in this summer’s heat.

Under the new format, gone will be the divisional playoff setup that would have pitted the two Alberta clubs against one another in the second round, if wild card Calgary could have beaten long odds to topple Pacific-leading Vegas, and the second-place Oilers eliminated Vancouver.

Not only do both Alberta teams now have to get into the playoffs first, by winning their best of five play-ins, they’d also have to hope for significant upsets all around them to set up a second-round clash with one another, regardless of whether the league decides to re-seed teams every round or go with a bracket system.

Otherwise, the best that fans on both sides of Red Deer can hope for is a provincial clash in the conference final, which would be one heck of a way for the NHL to ensure those who traditionally tune-out as barbecue season heats up wouldn’t dare miss a minute.

“From a fan’s perspective I can see how that would be disappointing,” said Oilers-turned-Flames winger Milan Lucic Wednesday.

“But from a player’s standpoint, for me, it doesn’t matter who you play and what your journey is to get there, just as long as you get there.”

Getting anywhere near a rink in the next week or two would sure seems like it will be a triumph given the danger, fear and uncertainty that looms with the pandemic that paused the NHL season mid-March. But if the NHL is able to get blessings from medical officials to see this plan through in as safe an environment as possible, there’s an understanding that plenty of sacrifices will have to be made.

Playing games in empty arenas would demonstrate that.

Maybe the sadness of seeing a Battle of Alberta without the backdrop of bloodthirsty fans would be too much to bear anyway.

“Yes, you’re always looking at certain regional rivalries that everyone would love to maximize, but the work that people have done to get us to this stage is nothing short of phenomenal,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving.

“It gives everybody more hope. You have to park all your individual wants and submit to the greater good here. We’re dealing with a real unprecedented situation and you’re never going to please everybody at the best of times, never mind coming through a situation like this.

“I think this is the best possible plan you could have.”

It’s a good one, yes — especially for fans in Toronto and Tampa who cherish the abandonment of the divisional playoff system.

In Calgary and Edmonton, it leaves fans wondering what could have been.

Tradition and proximity have long made Calgary-Edmonton faceoffs a novelty worth keeping an eye on. But this year the vitriol between the two drew the attention of casual observers everywhere as Matthew Tkachuk antagonized Zack Kassian into an explosive response that led to extended fireworks and debate that culminated with the first goalie fight in the battle’s lore.

The COVID-19 pause denied us all of the Game 82 matchup between the two that would likely have included playoff implications.

And while there’s little doubt next year’s on-ice reunion will still be preceded by plenty of hype, it sure would be swell if the same rosters that provided us with so much entertainment this season could get together again sooner.

That said, as formidable as Winnipeg is as the Flames’ opening foe, having to try winning a series against a Vegas team the Flames have never beaten at T-Mobile Arena was not an appealing proposition.

In that regard, the new format is a welcome change for Flames faithful.

The Oilers have to be thrilled to draw lowly Chicago.

There’s give and take everywhere if the league can pull this off against what are still long odds.

While home ice advantage has been minimized due to the absence of fans, one wonders how the Flames would feel about playing in the favoured hub city of Vegas, where the team has nothing but bad memories (on the ice, anyway).

So much to ponder. But it’s all a nice distraction from the discussions that had been held the previous nine weeks.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all,” said Tkachuk of the format. “These are different times and I think it’s just a real positive that we have a chance to hopefully play. And with this format, you never know, new rivalries could be formed. I just think everyone’s happy that there’s a chance to finish the rest of the season.”


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