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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Battle of Alberta Is Back!

Matthew Tkachuk is a rare skilled player who plays cheap and sometimes dirty. Opposing teams and fanbases loathe him, as they should, while Calgary Flames teammates and fans seemingly adore him.

He is the agitating piece-of-shit every rivalry needs.

The Battle of Alberta has only been that in name for many years. Neither team has been very good since they met in the 1991 playoffs.

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Each had a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final, but both lost in gut-wrenching fashion in game seven of the Cup Finals. Calgary lost to Tampa in 2004 and Edmonton lost to Carolina in 2006.

Between 1991 and today, the Flames have won a total of four playoff series, and three of them were in 2004. They defeated Vancouver in the first round in 2015. That’s it for playoff success. They made the playoffs 13 times between 1991-2019.

They lost in the first round in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2006-2009, and in 2017 and 2019. They are 4-12 in 16 playoff series since 1991.

Edmonton has won 10 series since 1991 and made the playoffs 10 times. They made the Conference Finals in 1991 and 1992, then the second round in 1997 and 1998, won three in 2006 and defeated San Jose in the first round in 2017.

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Calgary has been more competitive in the regular season, which isn’t that difficult considering the Oilers have been pretty bad for the majority of the 2000s, but the Flames have struggled in the playoffs for much of the past 23 seasons, only getting to the second round twice.

But the Battle of Alberta is on the verge of becoming meaningful again.

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HATE, ANIMOSITY AND SKILL

You need all three to have a good rivalry, and it looks like all three components are finally back in the BOA.

Tkachuk’s greasy smile and ability to agitate the Oilers makes him a great villain. Flames fans love him and Oilers fans hate him. Make no mistake, if he played in Edmonton, Oilers fans would love him.

A few years ago, while playing for the Vancouver Canucks, Zack Kassian swung his stick and broke Sam Gagner’s jaw. Kassian added to the hate when later that year he chirped the Oilers bench and mocked Gagner about his jaw.

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Oilers fans were livid, so too were the players, but Kassian didn’t remain in Vancouver very long and neither team was that competitive in the standings.

But today, the Oilers and Flames, along with Arizona, Vegas and Vancouver, are all within two points atop the Pacific Division. When the games mean more it is easier for the rivalry to become more intense.

Tkachuk ran Kassian three times with hard hits. They were cheap hits, by today’s NHL standards. Kassian wasn’t injured on any of them, and after the game he said he loved the intensity and physicality of the game. But he didn’t hold back his thoughts about Tkachuk and explained why he went after him late in the second period.

“The way I grew up, you don’t let people take advantage of you no matter what the situation is,” Kassian said. “I think they were targeted hits. You’re behind the net and he comes down … it’s like Raffi Torres-style in a way, but I’m a bigger guy and I don’t get the biggest impact.

“If you’re going to hit like that, you have to answer the bell every once in a while, especially one, two, three in the game. In the third (period) he followed me into the corner, right? He’s clearly trying to target me, which I like. I’m standing here. I love that stuff. I wish we could play them in a day-and-a-half like in a playoff series. It was fun for me. We lost the game. It sucks. But, all in all, he’s just a young punk that has to figure that aspect out in the game.

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“It’s sad because he’s a pretty good player, but he’s a pussy. He’s the definition of it. He wouldn’t fight me two years ago, said I was a fourth-liner. Now I have 13 goals. What’s the excuse now? You know what I mean?”

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Tkachuk doubled down on his actions post game.

“Well, if he doesn’t want to get hit, then stay off the tracks,” said Tkachuk. “I caught him three times there, so you think he’d learn after the first one. If he wants to react like that? We’ll take the power play, we’ll take the game-winner, and we’ll move on to first place.”

“That is part of my game. If I don’t do that, I’m not the same player. Right now maybe the puck’s not going in like it was at the beginning of the year for me, but you’ve got to be that type of player who can provide stuff other than that to the table.

“I needed to play like that tonight. I needed to be physical and not pass up on a hit. I thought our whole team did that,” continued Tkachuk.

He has no goals in seven games and only four in his last 16, but when he isn’t scoring Tkachuk elects to get involved physically. And often he does with the hope it antagonizes the opposition. It worked on Saturday as the Flames scored the winning goal on the powerplay.

But mainly Tkachuk added some actual vitriol and animosity to a rivalry that desperately needs some.

I was at my son’s Initiation hockey game Sunday and most people were talking about Tkachuk and Kassian. Even when I went to the gym this morning, many of the conversations, from men and women, was about it. People who aren’t diehard fans are talking about it. That is what the NHL should want, and frankly they need it. When you remove emotion from the game, eventually the emotion of the fans starts to wane. Most fans love a sport because it makes them emotional, both positively and negatively depending on the outcome of the game or a specific play.

Oilers fans hated Tkachuk before Saturday, but that hate has intensified significantly due to his cheap hits. A good rivalry needs hate and animosity and there is no shortage of hit now.

James Neal played one season in Calgary. He was Tkachuk’s linemate last year, but did not like the hit and Tkachuk’s post-game comments. Neal said this after practice today.

On the third one, Chucky (Tkachuk) was past me, and Kass didn’t even have the puck, and he runs him and hits him in the head. If it is anyone else, they’d go down, but Kass stayed up. Look at this legs. On the first one Kass was engaged with Gio (Giordano) and he (Kassian) is protecting the puck and going to the net and if anyone is surprised by the hit, it is his own guy. He takes him (Giordano) out just as bad.

“It is insane. It is a gutless hit on a guy in a very vulnerable position. For him to come out after and say, ‘If he doesn’t want to get hit then stay off the tracks. Those aren’t the tracks. He is picking a puck up off the wall, on a rim and he’s engaged in a battle with a defencemen. And then he (Kassian) has a winger come 10 feet out of position to take his head off.

“Ask any guy in hockey, no player wants to see that hit. That hit has ben gone out of the game for a long time. Guys like Raffi Torres or Steve Downie, they were getting 15 game suspensions. He targets his head and chases him into a battle he isn’t in. It is ridiculous,” said Neal.

It has been a long time since players for both teams were this irritated after a game between the Flames and Oilers. Personally, I love it. I think the NHL needs more rivalries.

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SUSPENSION FOR KASSIAN…

The problem is the NHL tries to promote rivalries. They actually call it “Rivalry night” for many Wednesday games. But clearly it should read, “Rivalry night, but not if there is too much emotion.”

Because Kassian is likely to be suspended today. He will get at least two games, and probably three. Why? Because the Oilers’ third game would be against the Flames on Wednesday, January 29th. Ironically on “Rivalry night.” But the NHL, which desperately needs more emotion in the game, will try to neuter the rivalry and suspend Kassian.

You can argue Kassian crossed the line as he fired 10 punches at Tkachuk. Fine, but there wasn’t any damage done. Kassian even admitted post-game he knows Tkachuk won’t him fight next game. He’s fine with it.

“It is just going to be one of those games where I know he’s not going to fight,” said Kassian, “But maybe it’s my turn to deliver something, follow him around a little and wait until he gets in a bad situation.”

It would seem the NHL cringed more at those words than the actual hits by Tkachuk, as they have deemed them legal and not worthy of a suspension. If that is what they deem legal now, great, so why not let Kassian deliver a few of his own and crank the rivalry up higher on January 29th?

Even Rasmus Andersson was tossing barbs after the game.

They’ve got a lot of pretenders out there. It’s really nice to beat those guys. That’s one of the biggest coward moves I’ve ever seen from Kassian. We make guys like that pay. That was a coward move…that’s the kind of player he is,” said Andersson.

The Oilers are upset at Tkachuk. The Flames think Kassian is a coward. Fans on both sides are supporting their player and team and it is AWESOME.

This is what you want. This what the BOA needs. It has essentially been a pillow fight for years, but now both teams are competitive. Both are in the thick of a tight race in the Pacific Division. The animosity is so high right now even Leon Draisaitl added a great line.

Jim Matheson asked him what he’d do if Tkachuk was on the ice with him and Connor McDavid at the upcoming All-Star game on January 26th. “I’d get off the ice,” replied the NHL’s second leading scorer.

Tkachuk is a fan-favourite in his city and considered a gutless puke in Oilersville.

Thank gawd. I missed having real emotion connected to the rivalry.

They play again on January 29th in Edmonton and then in Calgary on February 1st.

Two games in four days.

Not only is there some anger between the teams, the games have significant meaning due to the standings.

Thank you, Tkachuk. Thank you, Kassian.

This is how it should be. Welcome back, Battle of Alberta. We missed you.

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