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This is what Gary Bettman wanted. The divisional NHL playoff format is often criticized, but its ultimate goal is to produce rivalry series. And by that standard, in 2022, the format succeeded.
In the East, the Lightning and Panthers will drop the puck on an intrastate playoff matchup for the second straight season.
But our focus is on the West, where the Flames and Oilers will meet in the post-season for the first time since 1991. The winner earns a berth to the conference final (against either the Avalanche or Blues) and moves one step closer to becoming the first Canadian team to hoist the Stanley Cup since 1993.
The Battle of Alberta begins with Game 1 tomorrow at 9:30 p.m. ET. Each game will be available on CBC TV, CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app. Here’s the tale of the tape:
Each team earned a pair of regulation wins, with total goals favouring the Flames 17-16. Calgary won the most recent meeting 9-5 in a game where Oilers goalie Mike Smith even picked up a roughing penalty against — you guessed it — Matthew Tkachuk. We’ll take seven more like that, please.
WATCH | Memorable moments from the Battle of Alberta:
On paper, it’s tough to beat the collection of offensive firepower in this series, which features four 100-point scorers: Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Tkachuk. Individually, those players delivered in the first round — especially McDavid, whose 14 points lead the playoffs. Evander Kane, who joined Edmonton mid-season, is tops among remaining players with seven goals.
In reality, the scoring may not arrive in droves. Draisaitl reportedly played through a high-ankle sprain in Game 7 against Los Angeles, but although he didn’t skate today, Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said he is “available” for Game 1. The Flames, meanwhile, managed just 15 goals in their first-round series against Dallas. That’s partly due to the stellar play of Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, but the low total may also reflect Calgary head coach Darryl Sutter, whose signature tight-checking, low-event playoff style has helped him win more Game 7s than any coach in history.
The Flames may not possess that typical No. 1 defenceman you see on many Stanley Cup champions, but a team-wide commitment to structure helped them allow the third-fewest goals during the regular season. Much of their defensive help comes up front, and accordingly, centre Elias Lindholm was named one of three finalists for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward today. Reliable D-man Chris Tanev missed Game 7 with an injury, but he’s been on the ice in the leadup to the second round.
On the other hand, no remaining playoff team allowed more regular-season goals than the Oilers. Edmonton limited the Kings to two or fewer goals in each of its four wins, including a pair of shutouts. But it also allowed a pedestrian Los Angeles offence to tally 13 times over its three losses. The Oilers’ defensive play could be the biggest swing factor of the series.
Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom is a Vezina candidate who posted an impressive .922 save percentage in the regular season, then upped it to .943 in seven games against the Stars. He’s about as solid a bet as they come in the crease.
Edmonton’s Mike Smith is a bigger question mark. His .938 save percentage in the playoffs ranks fourth in the league, but he was closer to average in just 27 starts during an injury-riddled season. At 40, it’s fair to wonder how Smith will hold up through a playoff run.
It wouldn’t be the Battle of Alberta if things didn’t get feisty. And you know Tkachuk will find himself at the centre of some controversy — possibly opposing Edmonton’s Zack Kassian, with whom there’s an ongoing feud dating back to 2019, when Tkachuk turtled after Kassian dropped his gloves for a fight.
And Tkachuk and Kassian are just the main characters. Kane already made waves by showboating at the end of the Kings series, and former Oiler tough guy Milan Lucic lingers on the Flames’ bench.
The Flames are listed at multiple sportsbooks as -190 favourites to win the series, which implies around a 65 per cent chance of Calgary advancing. But that also seems a little high for an NHL playoff series between relatively even teams and hated rivals.
Let’s double-check with Wayne Gretzky then. He may be a little biased, but his hockey expertise is certainly undeniable. The Great One, in his first season as a studio TV analyst with TNT, even picked all eight first-round winners correctly. So who does he have surviving the Battle of Alberta? Yup, that would be the Flames.