We’re all guilty of using the term, The Battle of Alberta, in reference to Oilers-Flames hockey in 2016. Mercifully, the term should have been legislated out of journalists’ lexicon in about 1992, and reintroduced when or if these two Alberta teams ever become contenders.
Like a time capsule, school children could have poured over the ancient game sheets of 1984 with the 14th and 15th goals written in the margins, or touched that Oilers jersey carved to bits by Doug Risebrough’s skates in the penalty box. They could learn the history of the 5-on-5 brawl, with historic tips from Swede Knox and Randy Mitton, two prevalent linesmen of The Battle, and a foreword by Tim Hunter.
Alas, today’s Battle of Alberta is contested between two teams in 26th and 27th place, neither much better than the other, on a Saturday night that featured two goals, zero fights, and ended mercifully in a 1-for-6 shootout. They try hard, these clubs, but accomplished little this Saturday in a 2-1 shootout win that the Oilers certainly will not turn their noses up at.
“When we get we take, and we’re happy,” said head coach Todd McLellan. “This one in particular, because of the rivalry, the way we lost to them last time we played in this building…”
There is a stark difference between these two Alberta teams, and it is found on their blue-lines, as plain as the nose Bob Johnson used to wipe on his tie. In Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie Calgary has the two best defencemen on the ice when these two teams meet — no questions asked.
So the Flames begin every game knowing they are 26 minutes of safe play in the own zone ahead of Edmonton, a team whose defensive scheme looks like some kind of molecular experiment, players flying every which way and bouncing off each other in random collisions.
Calgary, meanwhile, can count on scoring help from its blue-line, with 99 points from defencemen this season. Edmonton has 55, with Andrej Sekera leading the way with 16 points. He would be fifth in scoring among Flames defencemen.
The rest of the time, the Flames are able to turn possession in their own zone into a zone exit, where the Oilers consistently need two or three cracks simply to chip a puck to centre, where it is collected by the opposition and turned back against them.
“That ability is testament to our D-men being able to sense where the pressure is coming from, and make a play,” said appreciative Flames winger David Jones. “They put it on your tape, and that’s huge. When you’re trying to chip pucks all the time, it makes it tough.”
Truly, how good would Edmonton be with Giordano and the emerging Brodie, who has worked his way on to Team Canada’s radar for next fall’s World Cup? So has Sam Bennett, for the Under-24 Team North America.
He scored the Flames lone goal, coming off a four-goal game three nights earlier.
“There aren’t too many players who score four goals (in) a game,” Flames head coach Bob Hartley said. “Remember, he’s 19 years old. It’s a prelude to what he’ll do in the future.”
Ah, the future. It’s been coming for so many years now in Edmonton, Oilers fans sometimes wonder if they nodded off and it passed unnoticed.
On Saturday they opened up the new Rogers Place for public viewing, and the hardcore Oilers fan stood in line in minus-23 weather for a glimpse at the unfinished concrete interior. The Oilers will play there next season, the rare hockey promise that looks like it’s going to be kept in this town.
In Calgary, they are one year into an aggressive arena project that could take five more years, eight more years… perhaps even a decade.
But they’re coming. The rinks are coming. Like these two teams, the future is bright. Success is just over that next hill.
It’s Saturday night in a sold out Rexall Place, and they came to see The Battle of Alberta. They got a goal by Mark Fayne instead, his first since Valentine’s Day, 2015.
Don’t worry folks, it’ll get better than this. It has to.