What to watch for in Monday's critical Flames-Oilers Battle of Alberta

Derek Ryan excited for another edition of Battle Of Alberta, but his first from the Oilers side of things, and says the players don't just treat these as another game, and they really embrace the emotion and hype behind each one.

On Monday night the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames meet for the third time this season and if you guessed at the beginning of the year where these teams would be in the standings on March 7, you may be surprised by the actual results.

Calgary is in control of the Pacific Division, four points up on Los Angeles and five points up on Vegas with four games in hand of each. The Oilers, meantime, are fourth in the division and just outside of the Western Conference's second wild card spot, two points back of Nashville with one more game played than the Predators.

In the previous two meetings, Edmonton came out on top both times by 5-2 and 5-3 scores as the home side. Much has changed since their last meeting on Jan. 22 though.

Since that game, Calgary is first in the NHL with an .861 points percentage, 69 percentage points clear of No. 2 Tampa Bay. Edmonton is 11th with a .632 points percentage in that time. Calgary is second in both goals per game and goals against per game in that span, while Edmonton has been 14th in offence and 12th on defence.

Monday's game will be the first between the two at the Saddledome this season.

What should we be looking for in the latest Battle of Alberta? Let's bring in Mark Spector and Eric Francis for their perspectives...


What is most the most important thing to see from the Oilers when they play in Calgary Monday night? 

A functioning powerplay? Goaltending? A penalty kill that doesn’t get preyed upon? Some physicality? 

The Edmonton Oilers wish there was only one thing that had to get shored up, after back-to-back losses to Chicago and Montreal, two non-playoff teams that showed Edmonton around the rink. 

The Oilers powerplay, once a record-setting unit that has led the NHL for the past two seasons, is a shadow of its former self. It’s not making anyone pay the price for coming down hard on the skill players, which allows teams to take more liberties at even strength. Meanwhile, the penalty kill has just one clean sheet in the past nine games. 

Mikko Koskinen will start in goal against the Flames, and he’s been excellent of late. After him however, goaltending continues to be a major issue up North. 

What do the Flames do that the Oilers could find difficult to handle? 

The Flames are a big, burly team that is playing playoff hockey in March. They define “hard to play against,” and that is a massive advantage as these teams line up for the second to last Battle of Alberta this season. 

The Oilers are too soft, with no heavy fourth line and a relatively passive D-corps. They’re easy to play against, and if you watched Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki dance around the offensive zone Saturday night for the Montreal Canadiens, you’ll know that Johnny Gaudreau is licking his chops at the thought of an Oilers defence that does not punish opponents nearly enough to have serious playoff aspirations. 

With Tyson Barrie injured, the Oilers are icing rookies Philip Broberg and Marcus Niemelainen, to go with William Lagesson and Evan Bouchard — none of whom have played 80 NHL games. Of the four, Niemelainen is the only one who routinely finishes checks, making the Oilers’ end a bruise-free zone on most nights. 

The contrast with the way Calgary plays is stark, and though soft skill can win in October and November, as the playoffs approach the Flames’ physical game will dictate. 

What could this game tell us about Edmonton's playoff outlook and trade deadline approach? 

To be honest, Edmonton doesn’t need Calgary to tell them what they already know. 

If there was a way to upgrade their goaltending at the deadline, the Oilers would be all over it. But thus far, the trade landscape appears such that there won’t be a netminder available who is upgrade enough to justify parting with the assets required. 

So if you can’t fix the goaltending, then you’d better clean up your own zone. That’s where GM Ken Holland will try to help his team at the deadline, a need that the Calgary Flames may exploit on Monday night, though it has long ago been obvious. 

Darnell Nurse needs a solid, defence-first partner on the right side. If Holland could acquire a reliable, veteran right-shot defenceman, like Philadelphia’s Justin Braun, then you could run Nurse-Braun, Cody Ceci and Duncan Keith on the second pair, and a third pairing of Evan Bouchard and Barrie, or Niemelainen, moving Braun up and down with Barrie depending on the game situation. 

Head coach Jay Woodcroft likes his 11-and-7 roster — 11 forwards and seven defencemen. But come playoff time you can’t have so many kids on the back end, and you may prefer to have four complete lines to make it through the grind, with games every second night. 

A solid fourth-liner with some size and grit wouldn’t hurt this team either. 


Calgary dropped the first two games they played against Edmonton this season. What's different this time?

Since their last meeting the Flames have gone 15-3 to build a significant swagger and cushion atop the Pacific Division. They've since added Tyler Toffoli to the third line, bolstering the depth of a club that has been getting an increased amount of production from its second line.

Third pair defencemen Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov have stepped up significantly the past month to solidify the team's identity as an imposing bunch that will inflict pain at both ends. The Oilers have added Evander Kane and are in the midst of trying to play a more defensive style under Jay Woodcroft, with mixed results of late.

This is the Flames' first home game of the series and it comes on the heels of yet another huge morale-booster Saturday when they won 4-3 in overtime against top-ranked Colorado. 

What do the Oilers have that the Flames could find difficult to handle?

Well, what they have includes Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and one of the world's best power plays when it's working. Those two lads have used the extra man to feast on the Flames the past several years.

Their first meeting of the season came on opening night when McDavid scored two of his three goals on the power play. Draisaitl had three helpers that night. In their meeting Jan. 22 Draisaitl broke a 3-3 tie with two goals in the third period to cap a four-point evening that also saw McDavid add two power play assists. Two games, 12 points. You get the idea.

The Flames pride themselves on their discipline and boast the league's fifth-ranked penalty kill, but both have been unable to shut down the only two fellas who can beat the Flames this time around.       

The Oilers are out of a playoff spot and have urgency to win -- but how important is this game to the Flames and why?

There isn't a game on the schedule that means more to either team than the Battle of Alberta, and this one is no different. The Flames are motivated to finally beat the Oilers this season, while also seeing this as a chance to essentially end any chance of their rivals catching them in the standings. Nothing would be more satisfying for the Flames and their fan base than to widen the nine-point gap on an Oilers team that will be in a dog fight until the end to make the playoffs.

Early last week, when asked about his team being deemed Canada's best, Sutter did his best to keep the mind games going by scoffing: "Edmonton and Toronto are the two best teams (in Canada.) It's not even close," he said. Let the real game begin Monday.

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