CALGARY —As the National Hockey League playoffs appear on the horizon, and the two Alberta teams lock horns for one last time on a Cowtown Saturday night, we’d ask you this:
What’s more important? Where you finish, or how you’re playing when the finish line arrives?
The Calgary Flames, who have surfed atop the Pacific Division all season long, would take solace in the fact they’ve earned first place. They are the best team in Alberta through 82 games — have no doubt about that — but their reward could well be a wildcard opponent that is as good as or perhaps more dangerous than the Los Angeles Kings team that looks more and more like Edmonton’s Round 1 draw.
Of course, the Oilers, who could finish second in the Pacific if their play continues on its current trajectory, would say the former. All they need to be is the best team for two weeks, in Round 1 against L.A., and in Rd. 2 vs. the Flames, should the Hockey Gods be so kind as to grant us our first Battle of Alberta playoff series since 1991.
“There are certain matchups you might like better,” began Edmonton defenceman Tyson Barrie. “But you’ve seen it over the years: Once you’re in, it’s anybody’s game.
“If you’re playing at your top-level going into the playoffs? That definitely suits you better.”
Since Jan. 22, the Flames have the most points in the NHL (40). Guess who is second?
Edmonton, with 37. That’s two months — not a good week or even a good month.
Edmonton has acclimatized a new coaching staff, a couple of deadline pick-ups in Brett Kulak and Derick Brassard, and for the first time in forever Thursday night, it had an entirely healthy roster from which to choose 20 players. When Edmonton lost a 3-1 decision at Calgary two weeks ago, they were without six of the players who will populate their lineup on Saturday.
Down in Calgary, the Flames appear a tad bored, losing two of their past three games to Buffalo and San Jose — a pair of teams the more desperate Oilers beat by a combined score of 11-3. Attention span shouldn’t be an issue for the Flames on Saturday, however, when the opponent arrives wearing blue and orange.
“I am new to the Battle of Alberta,” said Zach Hyman, “but it seems not to matter what the standings are — (whether) one team is good or one team is bad. This year there are two very good teams and it is going to be a great matchup. They are first in our division and it is a rivalry that you don’t have to have played many games in to know how important it is to the fans here and the city.
“I am looking forward to it, definitely.”
This is the last meeting of the regular season between these two, a Hockey Night in Canada beauty as the NHL season hits the quarter pole with everybody’s lineups set post-trade deadline.
In Edmonton, they have found enough wingers to sequester Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on their own lines, with a fourth-line that houses a couple of penalty killers and Zack Kassian, always a fan favourite at the Saddledome.
In Calgary, head coach Darryl Sutter has shifted his top-six a tad, moving Matt Tkachuk to the second line. Suddenly, Sean Monahan is a question mark to even make the lineup on a given night, so lost is his personal game in a season where the Flames have so efficiently found their overall team chemistry.
The Flames have, however, a trump card in Jacob Markstrom.
Edmonton can start whomever they wish in goal, but when it comes time to check the box marked “goaltending,” neither Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith will get the “X.”
It’s an important “X,” no doubt. But is it the only factor?
Not when you have the firepower that Edmonton possesses, and if it's playing the right way — as it has been in stacking up a 6-1-1 run of late.
“I think it’s all about peaking at the right time,” said Smith, who is doing just that. He has posted three quality starts since returning from illness, and like his team, he is playing his best hockey as the stretch run arrives.
“We’ve done a lot of things here in the last few weeks that have given this team a lot of confidence. We feel like we can play with anybody in this league,” Smith said. “I can remember my first year in Arizona, we were kind of out of a playoff spot and then we ended up winning the division and going on a run where we were playing some of the best hockey that we played all season long. We weren’t supposed to do anything (and they went to the Western Conference Final).
“So I think it’s more about how you’re playing going in, than where you (finish).”
The only thing finishing on Saturday is the season series between Edmonton and Calgary, so far a 2-1 edge for Edmonton.
Then they’ll say so long. Hopefully not goodbye.