EDMONTON — Darnell Nurse has spent a good part of the last three seasons trying to separate a particular Calgary Flames winger from the herd, to little success. Which has so often the case in the Battle of Alberta, as the guy who gets under your skin the most tends seldom, if ever, to engage a player the size of Nurse.
“They have some elite s— disturbers,” Nurse said of tonight’s opponent, the Calgary Flames.
But what about Matthew Tkachuk?
He’s the guy who aggravated the Oilers so badly in their only other meeting this season, on Nov. 17 in Calgary. We’ve seen Nurse challenge Tkachuk almost nightly since the Flames winger came into the league two seasons ago, to no avail.
What about that “elite s— disturber?”
“I don’t even know who you’re talking about, to be honest with you,” deadpanned Nurse. “That whole team… It just comes from playing against each other so often.”
Rule No. 1: when playing a hated rival with a particular player who really bugs your team, never mention him by name — or he’ll be able to say he’s inside your head nine hours before puck drop.
Us journalists were asking about Tkachuk at the morning skate Sunday, but the Oilers weren’t biting. No one would refer to Keith’s boy and Brady’s older brother by name.
“I think it just comes naturally in the rivalry that you can get over excited and over emotional at times, and you try not to let him get the best of you,” said Milan Lucic. “If you look at the last time we played them, we probably spent a little too much time in the box, retaliating and stuff like that. But we’re focused on trying to play a good complete game here and earn two points because of where we are in the standings and just keep building on what we’ve been doing.”
Last month, Edmonton led 2-1 after 40 minutes in Calgary before losing 4-2 with an empty net goal. Tkachuk plied his very effective trade by leaning on Connor McDavid on a couple of occasions, but then turtling when Zack Kassian came calling. Kassian took 16 minutes in penalties, then added another 10-minute misconduct when the game was out of reach.
“I don’t go into a game thinking I’m going to take 26 minutes in penalties and not play the whole game. That’s what I don’t want to do,” Kassian told reporters on Saturday. “I’m a very effective player if I’m playing the right way, playing on the edge but not crossing it. Sometimes you’re going to cross it and that was one of those games, but we can play the right way and still get the message across.”
Over the many years this rivalry has had its share of Esa Tikkanens, Theo Fleurys and Neil Sheehys — players adept at revving up emotions, but who tried not to be front and centre when things boiled over and the gloves hit the ice.
In November that was Tkachuk and Kassian. The Oilers winger was asked on Saturday what to do about a player who gets everyone going, but prefers not to finish what he starts.
“That’s kind of an unsolved puzzle,” Kassian allowed. “He’s doing what he’s doing, and If I’m chasing him around, he’s doing his job, right? And I’m trying to do my job.
“Its two rams buttin’ heads. That’s what makes the game of hockey fun. But … I can’t take myself right out of hockey games, obviously.”
Calgary comes in as the top team in the Western Conference, meaning it is hard enough to defeat under any circumstances, let alone when you’re adding in a bunch of Battle of Alberta extracurriculars. The Oilers are also rolling along nicely, having won five of their past six and four straight at home — all while playing tame, to-the-point hockey.
Remembering how they won all those games will be the key to beating Calgary, said Ken Hitchcock.
“You’ve got to play through stuff,” the Oilers head coach said. “Some of it is nasty, some of it is hard. But you’ve got to play through it — as a team, individually, and as a coach. If you allow yourself to be distracted by good teams like Calgary, they’re going to beat you every time.
“It leads to frustration, which leads to lost energy, and we’re going to need every bit of energy if we expect to beat Calgary.”