Undaunted by history, Flames and Oilers will craft their own Battle of Alberta legacy

Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith, left, lets in a goal from Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk during second period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

CALGARY — A throng of media-types three times the size as normal welcomed Matthew Tkachuk and the rest of the players to the podium yesterday with questions about a rivalry they know very little about. 

What they do know is they’re in the middle of something special, which Tkachuk got a hint of his very first NHL game. 

“My first memory was the first game in the new rink in Edmonton,” he said. “Everybody was in their seats for warmups. I thought that was pretty crazy. As I was skating out on the ice, I don’t remember perfectly, but Gretzky and Messier were out there doing a few laps or something. I’m 18 years old, thinking, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this.’” 

A large majority of the players in this series weren’t born when the last BOA series was 31 years ago, sparking shrugs from most of them when asked about what they knew of the hockey played back then. 

“Not much,” said Elias Lindholm, 28. 

“It wasn’t on in Sweden, so nothing,” added Jacob Markstrom with a grin, as he was a one-year-old then. 

“Just big moments in NHL history,” said Tkachuk. “I’m serious when I say I didn’t know about it until I got drafted. It’s gotten bigger the last few years with both teams playing a lot better and maybe meeting each other in playoffs, and here we are.” 

Tkachuk’s brother, Brady, has been busy riling up fans in the Dome and throwing out t-shirts in support of his brother’s club. The Senators captain was also seen hoisting a child on his shoulders as part of his celebrations. 

 “I’m surprised his parents let him go on Brady’s shoulders,” laughed Tkachuk. “I think that was kind of a spur of the moment thing.” 

Call Your Shot? 

The beauty of The Battle has always been that just when you think they’re going to have a Pier 6 brawl all night long, the Flames and Oilers give us an incredible night of high-skill hockey. And just when you settle in for some buckled down, defensive hockey, you get a goalie fight or — like on a whacky Saturday night earlier this season — a 9-5 shootout

This season, Edmonton beat Calgary 5-3 and 5-2, and the Flames won 3-1 and 9-5. Neither team won on the road. 

“I think you’ve seen both sides when we played each other in the regular season,” said Connor McDavid. “You’ve seen low-scoring, tight-checking games. Obviously the last time we were in here it was a 9-5 gong show, pretty much. We want to be a checking team and that’s the brand that they want to play as well. 

“I think you’ll see low-scoring nights and nights where there are a couple more goals, but I would expect it to be a pretty tight-checking series.” 

Asked if he still had friends on the Oilers, Milan Lucic smiled. 

“For the next however many days? No.”  

Next question. 

Asked how he thought Edmontonians feel about Wayne Gretzky’s prediction the Flames would win, Lucic chuckled. 

“I’m sure they don’t like it, but he’s just giving his expert opinion,” he said, putting an emphasis on the word expert. 

Battle Goes Net Front 

The Calgary Flames are the bigger team — there’s no dispute there. And if it comes down to fisticuffs, Calgary is in a better spot, with their toughness centred nearer the bottom of their lineup in Milan Lucic, Brett Ritchie, Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov, while two of Edmonton’s toughest guys are 25-miniute man Darnell Nurse and top six left winger Evander Kane. 

As such, the Oilers want to make this series about speed.  

“We want to be the first mover. We want to put an emphasis on speed,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “For us, speed trumps perfection.” 

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Calgary is not L.A., when it comes to size and the ability to control net fronts at either end of the ice. The Zadorov-Gudbranson pairing is vastly bigger and tougher than anything the Kings had, and up front the Flames have players like Lucic and Ritchie (if he dresses), tough players who go to the net hard. 

How do the Oilers go about winning the net front battle at both ends of the ice?  

“There are things that we can do defensively, and things that we can do offensively,” Woodcroft said. “Something that we talked about (Tuesday) was that the team that’s going to come out on top is the one that’s willing to pay the price. The one that’s willing to do it harder, and for longer.” 

In the end, as one would expect, the challenge gets steeper as a team moves from Round 1 to 2. The Kings took Edmonton to seven games, but Calgary presents a must greater impediment. 

“Yes, it’s a new challenge, a new task,” the coach said. “A complete different animal, a team that’s at the top of the Pacific Division for a reason. They do a lot of things really well. We’re gonna have our hands full.” 

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The phones of Flames alumni have been blowing up the last few days, sparking Joel Otto to say, “Us old guys are relevant again.” 

“I think it’s important for the province. I’m a Calgarian now — lived here since the late 90’s — and understanding the passion between the two cities and how important it is to ‘one-up’ one another,” said Otto. 

“They used the word hate but it’s a grudge match.” 

Incidentally, the last Flames player to score an OT winner in Game 7 at home was Otto 33 years ago, which was a somewhat controversial deflection off his skate. 

“I’ll tell all my grandchildren it was similar to what Johnny did,” he laughed. 

“There aren’t a lot of comparisons other than it was Game 7.”

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