If you’re searching for drama and storylines and just some good old-fashioned playoff hockey, look no further than the second-round series between Calgary and Edmonton.
It’s the Battle of Alberta folks. Reunited, and it feels so good.
For the first time since 1991 the two provincial rivals will meet in the post-season and it’s shaping up to be a doozy. Connor McDavid is at his absolute best, while Johnny Gaudreau is coming off the most impressive series of his career, closed out by his Game 7 OT winner. The division-winning Flames were a force all year, while the Oilers finally got it together after a mid-season coaching change turned them around.
So what does the rivalry have in store this time?
You can be sure it will be physical and that the boisterous crowds in both locations will be a factor throughout. Penalties? They’re up in these playoffs, and while we’d like for all the infractions to be called that interfere with scoring opportunities, we also hope the tight rope is walked between calling the game fairly and letting this series find its own way at even strength. The officials are bound to be a storyline as well.
In 1991, the Oilers triumphed over the Flames in seven games. In 1988, it was the Oilers in a sweep. In 1984, it was another seven-gamer in Edmonton’s favour, and in 1983 it was Edmonton in five. They won the Stanley Cup in two of those seasons. The Flames came out on top of this rivalry only in 1986 and then went to the Cup final. Now, Calgary will be looking for some sweet historical revenge. At the peak of this playoff rivalry, the Oilers were in their dynastic years — now it’s the Flames who will enter the series as favourites.
This is the series to watch. Buckle up, it’ll be a wild ride.
The Story Of How The Flames Got Here:
Winning the division was supposed to open up an easier path through Round 1, but the Flames will instead be coming off a gruelling seven-gamer in which they had to battle through a difficult and disciplined Dallas defence, and then a near-unbeatable performance from goalie Jake Oettinger. The flow of Game 7 was decidedly in Calgary’s favour and their best effort of the series, but it took until overtime to finally get the 3-2 decision they were after, and their first lead of the game.
It couldn’t have been a more dramatic ending.
Their opening-round series, and really this whole playoff run, is a big moment for a team that will be facing critical off-season choices. While these could be the final days for Johnny Gaudreau as he plays out his contract, he could also make himself a must-keep player with a breakout playoff performance and he came through in Round 1, leading the Flames with eight points in seven games and both his goals counting as game-winners. Gaudreau and his line carried play all series and, against a less-disciplined opponent, the trio could have exploded even more on the score sheet. In Game 7, when he played the role of hero, Gaudreau fittingly was wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater in Chris Tanev’s absence. It was a statement game on his part.
The Flames trailed in their first series 2-1 and then pulled ahead with a 3-2 series lead before Dallas forced a seventh game. Jacob Markstrom, while not facing the same workload as Oettinger, played up to his reputation and didn’t let in the key bad goal that could have put the Flames on their back foot. At the most key moments he was there — Markstrom’s .943 save percentage is the second-best mark in the league these playoffs, behind only Dallas’ netminder.
One thing to watch heading into the second round is the health of Calgary’s blue line. They were without Tanev for Game 7 and may have to begin without him against Edmonton, whose top stars will test the limits of their ability to defend. Oliver Kylington also briefly left Game 7 after taking a rough tumble but was able to finish the game.
This is Calgary’s best chance at a Cup since the run to the 2004 final — and now their chief rival is all that stands between them and their first appearance in Round 3 since that memorable season.
The Story Of How The Oilers Got Here:
It could be as simple as saying “Connor McDavid” and moving on to the next segment.
McDavid leaves Round 1 as the league scoring leader, averaging two points per game and the early Conn Smythe favourite with three rounds left to go. He had six multi-point games in the series, becoming just the second player ever to do that. When McDavid is doing things Wayne Gretzky never did in an Oilers uniform, you’re on to something special.
While Edmonton was chasing their series against Los Angeles 3-2, McDavid turned it up another notch, getting five points over the final two games and playing an astounding 27:23 in Game 7. McDavid, the best player going, willed his team through and wasn’t going to be denied this time.
But we can’t talk about the Oilers and not acknowledge that goalie Mike Smith recovered from a horrendous Game 1 gaffe that cost his team the game and came through with a pretty solid series overall. In Game 2, Smith recorded a shutout and did so again in the win-or-go-home Game 7, wrapping up the series with a .938 save percentage that is third among all remaining goalies. Not bad for a player who was labelled a question mark coming in.
Evander Kane as well had a big series, scoring seven goals and getting a ton of opportunities, 34 shots overall. Six of his goals came at even-strength.
The Oilers were fed a little adversity in Round 1 and faced it head-on, winning two elimination games, including one without their top defenceman, Darnell Nurse. The team defence, a challenging aspect come playoff time in the past, carried over a strong finish under interim coach Jay Woodcroft in the regular season. Depth scoring showed up enough — 12 Oilers skaters scored a goal in the opening round.
Edmonton took a step in Round 1, but questions will persist about how long they can sustain it. Can Smith keep up his level of performance? Is Leon Draisaitil going to be healthy enough to be a dangerous contributor?
One thing you can count on is that McDavid will dazzle and elevate the Oilers on his own.
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Flames X-Factor: Matthew Tkachuk
Round 1 was all about Johnny. Gaudreau was the key player in so many situations and the defining moment of the round was his winner in Game 7. In Round 2, Tkachuk figures to be at the centre of attention … a lot.
Tkachuk is second on the Flames with six points, but it took seven games for him to score his first goal, and it was a timely one at that — his lone marker tied Game 7 midway through the second and was the last goal before OT. He was minus-2 in the series and was eighth in individual scoring chances among all Flames in Round 1, behind the likes of Dillon Dube and Blake Coleman.
The rivalry of Edmonton-Calgary figures to bring out the disturber in Tkachuk, who will have to walk the fine line between being an effective nuisance and a penalty-taking liability. For as much as the Flames need Tkachuk to get involved in the physical side of things and try to draw Oilers penalties, they also will need his offence to shine through. This series will be played much differently than the last, and it has Tkachuk’s name written all over it.
Oilers X-Factor: Leon Draisaitl
While McDavid keeps earning the Best Player In The World designation, Draisaitl himself is a top-five talent in the league and a player the Oilers need to lean on. How healthy is he though? It’ll be a massive storyline to watch heading into Round 2.
There was some question if an ankle injury was going to keep Draisaitl out of the Game 7 lineup, but he played and was on the ice for over 22 minutes. He’s clearly not 100 per cent, but did get the primary assist on Cody Ceci’s opening goal. Draisaitl spent the game back next to McDavid at even-strength, which will continue to be an option for Woodcroft to pursue.
Can Edmonton ride its top two players for so many minutes all series and all playoff long? How much does Draisaitl’s injury hamper him from here, and how much will the break help? If Draisatil struggles, more pressure to have an impact will fall on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Game 1: Wednesday, May 18, 9:30 p.m. ET / 7:30 p.m. MT (Sportsnet and CBC)
Game 2: Friday, May 20, 10:30 p.m. ET / 8:30 p.m. MT (Sportsnet and CBC)
Game 3: Sunday, May 22, 8 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. MT (Sportsnet and CBC)
Game 4: Tuesday, May 24, 9:30 p.m. ET / 7:30 p.m. MT (Sportsnet and CBC)
*Game 5: Thursday, May 26, TBD
*Game 6: Saturday, May 28, TBD
*Game 7: Monday, May 30, TBD