Kids leading the way in renewed Battle of Alberta

Connor McDavid scored twice, once on a penalty shot, to get the Oilers a 6-4 win over the Flames in the first game played in Rogers Arena.

Glen Gulutzan has a reminder for all those caught up in the youth movement that seems to be sweeping the NHL.

“It’s still a man’s league,” the Calgary Flames head coach said as he prepped for his club’s Battle of Alberta rematch Friday.

“I do think [the young players] are taking over the league but in the years I’ve been in the league I think after the first 20 games it settles out. Once it settles down it’s still a man’s league after that.

“As talented as those young guys are, especially the 18-year-olds in general – I’m not talking Connor (McDavid) – it gets a little tougher for them. But (Auston Matthews and McDavid) are elite, superstar-caliber players and they may not have any hiccups and they can blow through it.”

They sure did opening night, which brings us back to what has everyone in Alberta talking about.

Heck, everyone in Canada has been thinking it:

The kids are all right.

Perhaps nowhere more so than in Alberta, where years of rebuilding has both clubs stockpiled with fast, young, talented troops on the verge of making the odd Skirmishes of Alberta back into meaningful battles.

That appeared to be the case opening night until McDavid broke a 3-3 tie midway through the game with his first goal of the year, followed by a highlight-reel penalty shot shimmy-shake that still has Flames goalie Brian Elliott scratching his head.

Add a goal by 18-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi in his NHL debut, and an Oilers team with just eight returning players from last year made a talented Flames squad look like the kids, winning 7-4.

The fact is, they too are kids — which makes the matchup so delicious moving forward.

At one point during four-on-four play Wednesday, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau lined up against McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in a showdown few would dare turn away from watching.

On the second unit was 20-year-old Sam Bennett (fourth overall in 2014) and 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk (sixth overall in 2016) matching up at times against 20-year-old Leon Draisatl (third overall in 2014) and Puljujarvi (fourth in 2016).

In addition to the fact that the future is bright for both clubs, their head-to-heads already promise to be shootouts as both teams count on endless speed, skill and creativity to push the envelope at both ends of the ice.

And, like junior hockey, that also means plenty of mistakes, leading to scoring chances bound to drive Elliott and Cam Talbot nuts.

“With that skill comes mistakes,” agreed Gulutzan, whose Flames are the 13th-youngest team with an average age of 27.5 years old. (The Oilers are seventh-youngest at 26.6.)

“They can dazzle you but they make more mistakes than the older players.”

The Flames certainly made more giveaways and gaffes than the Oilers in a game that saw 69 shots, 11 goals and two talented teams with plenty of room to grow.

“That’s the thing when you have young teams and emotional games. We got behind earlier and were out of sorts,” said Gulutzan, whose club out-shot the hosts 41-28.

“We want a more controlled game and not try to open ourselves up too much. I don’t think we followed a game plan – once we fell behind we started to push. We need to play the same way for 60 minutes and be comfortable in our own skin.”

That could take some time as the team adjusts to a new system introduced by Gulutzan based on pressure and possession. Tack a lackluster pre-season onto the fact Monahan was only healthy enough to play once while Gaudreau just ended his contract impasse on Monday, and it’s clear the Flames would be fortunate to escape the crucial opening 10 games at .500.

“We gave them what they got,” said Elliott, who’ll get the start again Friday despite plenty of hand-wringing in Calgary from panic-stricken fans suddenly (and foolishly) unsure he’s capable of his first gig as a true No.1 netminder.

“We’ll watch it in detail and learn from it and move on. It’s no different than any other game.”

Ah, but it is a whole new ball game in Alberta with the youngsters leading the way in a man’s game.

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