Thrilling Battle of Alberta exceeding lofty expectations

David Amber and Kelly Hrudey discuss how the Flames can plan to handle Connor McDavid, why Jakob Markstrom has been struggling this series, and how the Flames can retain their leads over the Oilers.

EDMONTON — Look, I’m not gonna lie to you.

I’ve propped this Battle of Alberta up as much as anyone. Likely more than most.

All those Saturday nights in January, when the no-chance Edmonton Oilers were hosting the barely-alive Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada, I was the guy writing about how one team could turn their season around with a win over the other. How the ghosts of Battles past still directed these franchises, the way a Belarusian dump-in haunts Tommy Salo’s dreams.

Here’s the truth: for most of 30 years, these two franchises have been a pair of donkeys in the Derby.

Neither one of them has won jack since the 80’s, before most of you were born, and they haven’t played a big game — a truly important game — against each other since Esa Tikkanen banked a shot in off of Frank Musil in overtime of Game 7 back in 1991. I think those two guys are watching today’s series from extended care.

(Hyperbole alert — they’re only 57 years old).

You want numbers? How about this:

Calgary and Edmonton each went to one Stanley Cup Final since the turn of the century, Calgary in ’04 and Edmonton in ’06. Both lost in Game 7.

It took the Flames 10 years to win their next playoff series. Edmonton missed the playoffs for 10 years after their trip to the Final, a period known there as The Decade of Darkness.

In the 21 non-Cup playoff seasons for each team since the year 2000, the two teams have combined for five series wins — all in Round 1. For these two teams the playoffs have been, in the words of “The Agrarian Contrarian” Darryl Sutter, “a waste of eight days.”

Someone will get a Round 2 win this year, but that’s not what we’re here to celebrate.

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Today, not only does the Battle of Alberta contain two teams that can beat you. Today,the that certain something is back.

Back in the day, this was a matchup that gave us the Steve Smith goal, or Wayne Gretzky’s very favorite among the 1,026 combined regular season and playoff goals in his career. (You get one guess which goal it was.)

Once again in 2022, The Battle is giving us antics you can’t get anywhere else, like that 9-6 ode to the ’80s in Game 1. Or with both teams promising to button things down in Game 2, a 5-3, series-evening win with three more goals called back?

This series has produced 23 goals in two games, the highest such total in 35 years. We’ve had a four-goal comeback by Edmonton in Game 1, followed by four straight goals to erase a 3-1 deficit in Game 2.

“I mean, this is fun, right?” said Leon Draisaitl, who is penning his own chapter in the annals as he limps through a series on what is thought to be a high ankle sprain. “The Battle of Alberta — both cities are very, very intense about it. They love it, and who knows when this is going to happen again, right?”

The antics, we’ll admit, have conservatized somewhat.

Today’s version has no Doug Risebrough shredding an Oilers jersey with his skates in the penalty box, nor a Glen Sather promising to invoice the Flames for said sweater. There is no Craig MacTavish to rip the tongue out of Harvey the Hound’s mouth, like a guy taking a ticket at the deli counter, or Marty McSorley, who impaled Mike Bullard’s groin on the end of his Koho and claimed amnesia when the media came calling.

Instead we get Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk in the Saddledome stands, beers in hand and wearing Calgary red and gold as he cheers on his brother Matt. Or the rarest of goals, where the guy who wasn’t included in coincidental minors came out of the box first, then failed to tag up to the blue-line before his goal — but wasn’t offside because an Oiler kicked the puck back into the zone.

You could watch hockey for 25 years and not see that combination on a goal.

“It’s been different,” Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “We won a game last night (where) we had two goals called back — and we found a way to win a game. I mean, that how often does that happen?”

The last time an Oiler had 20 points in the Stanley Cup playoffs it was Chris Pronger in ’06 — in 24 games. Connor McDavid has 20 points in nine games.

His is a high-wire act unlike any other, as McDavid rolls through the playoffs with eight multi-point games in nine starts. He is the fastest player to 20 points since Mario Lemieux 30 years ago, a tour de force through network television that has Hart Trophy voters in the GTA in full reconsideration mode.

“Do I think it’s special what Connor is doing? Yeah, you’ve got to,” said Woodcroft. “You don’t need me to tell you that. I think we’re all witness to what’s going on.”

The recipe is an Alberta delicacy second only to perogies and cabbage rolls, two hockey teams — one bigger and stronger with supposedly better goaltending, versus the other, a serviceable bunch behind hockey’s greatest player and another who is Top 5.

The dish, thus far, has been fabulous.

“This is a great time for both teams. A great time for both cities,” Draisaitl said. “Obviously, we’d like to not give up nine goals in Game 1. But we had a good game the other night, and I still think that you know we haven’t showed our best yet.”

If it gets better from here, count me in.

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