For sparks to turn into flames, the right conditions must be met.
Combustible elements are needed. Rising heat is, too, to bring those elements to their flash point — the temperature at which they can ignite — and so is oxygen to keep the whole thing going.
If there were doubts that those conditions were present in this rendition of the Battle of Alberta, Saturday night erased them.
Matthew Tkachuk provided that initial spark weeks ago with his series of hits on Zack Kassian, stick flips and post-game wars of words filled Alberta arenas with oxygen and — perhaps most importantly — the Edmonton Oilers’ and Calgary Flames’ respective returns to playoff-picture relevance ratcheted up the temperature enough to to cause Saturday night’s goalie-fight ignition.
For Battle of Alberta veterans Jim Peplinski and Martin Gelinas, the formula for how it unfolded was familiar.
“When I go back into the early 80s,” Peplinski, who won a Stanley Cup with Calgary in the 1988-89 season, recalled during Hockey Night in Canada’s After Hours segment, “when I first got to Calgary I can remember [former Flames forward] Willie Plett saying in the first year ‘Why would we go to Edmonton, they should just mail us the two points.’ We didn’t expect the Oilers to be competitive.
“The next year, they just took off and then they schooled us. The way we ended up starting to compete was having to get involved. And when you got involved, as Tkachuk is doing now, it forces the rest of your team to either show up or disappear. If you look at the previous game in Edmonton, when you see Monahan getting into an emotional altercation, that’s showing up.”
Saturday’s Flames-Oilers battle had no shortage of that brand of “showing up.” All told, 102 penalty minutes were handed out. Six of those penalties were fighting majors. For the first time in Battle of Alberta history, goalies dropped their gloves and blockers and threw punches.
Those fireworks coinciding with Calgary and Edmonton’s stature in the standings is no coincidence. The Oilers hold a slight edge with 62 points, while the Flames are sitting at 60, and with that the spectre of a potential first-round playoff matchup looms over each regular-season meeting.
“We’ve got two teams that have got some highly skilled players, very competitive,” Gelinas, who played for Edmonton for five seasons and now serves as Calgary’s assistant coach, said. “We use the word ‘hate’ [to describe how the teams feel about each other], you put that in the playoffs, I think it would be amped up and get even bigger.”
That line of thinking stems as much from personal experiences as it does from knowing the players currently involved.
Among the many memorable Battle of Alberta tilts Gelinas laced up the skates for, the most notable in his mind was the 1991 playoffs — the last time Edmonton and Calgary met in the post-season, 29 years ago.
The Flames and Oilers went head-to-head in the first round that year. Despite Calgary finishing 20 points ahead of Edmonton in the regular season, it lost to the defending champion in seven games.
“Going back to that first playoff run in 1991,” Gelinas recalled, “every game, every shift meant something. I had to go back yesterday and look at some of the clips, and you could see every guy finishing their checks. It was skill, it was physical, it was hard, it was back-and-forth.
“You had some character on both sides, too. We had Esa Tikkanen on our side, they had Theo Fleury, some guys that were in the fabric of the game — just like Matthew Tkachuk.”
That sentiment — that for the Battle of Alberta to be at its best, both parties must be, too –is shared by Peplinski.
As someone who played against high-skill teams like the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders during the 70s and 80s, Peplinski is no stranger to what the modern-day, Connor McDavid-led Oilers are capable of offensively.
But the Oilers of the past — like these Oilers are now showing — were capable of beating you with more than just speed and skill.
“Edmonton was an interesting mix of a team that had an incredible amount of speed, but they also wanted to put you into the ground,” Peplinski recalled. “I think a lot of that had to do with [Glen Slather]. When we would play the Oilers, if they got up by one [goal] they wanted to be up by two, it was never over.
“And so I give Edmonton a lot of credit for what Calgary became because if you didn’t show up, if you weren’t ready, every second, you would either get hurt or you’d get embarrassed.”
No one was hurt on Saturday, thankfully, but an 8-3 margin of victory for the Oilers fits the embarrassing bill — for one side, at least — adding further fuel to a rivalry that’s once more burning bright.