Tonight’s the night. Two weeks after the events of Zack Kassian vs. The Turtle in which the Flames escaped with a 4-3 victory over the Oilers in Calgary, we have The Rematch in Edmonton. It’s the most anticipated Battle of Alberta in years.
1. The Oilers and Flames have played twice so far this season with Calgary coming out victorious in both meetings. Interestingly enough, Edmonton’s only two regulation losses since the Christmas break have come against the Flames. They’re 6-2-1 in that span.
2. The first Battle of Alberta came in the form of a sluggish 5-1 loss in Edmonton back on Dec. 27, and the second one, of course, came a couple of weeks ago in Calgary, with the Flames winning 4-3. The storyline of that game was Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk and subsequent fallout over who won. Flames fans will argue that getting Kassian angry and forcing him into the penalty box was all part of his plan. Oilers fans will argue Tkachuk is a turtle and his teammates wouldn’t even bother standing up for him. The stage is set tonight as Kassian will make his return from his two-game suspension in front of what will surely be a wild and charged up crowd at Rogers Place.
3. I can’t remember a Battle of Alberta with this much anticipation in my lifetime. There’s been good Battle of Alberta games with exciting moments, like the first Turtle incident and 10-man scrap in 2018, Jordan Eberle’s first goal, and Steve MacIntyre’s knockout, but there hasn’t been one that features the culmination of a bitter rivalry and meaning in the standings in ages.
4. After an overtime loss at home against the Blues on Tuesday night, the Flames sit one point up on the Oilers in the standings. A win tonight for the Oilers would result in them leapfrogging the Flames in the standings while also holding two games in hand. The two teams will also play each other again on the weekend, so picking up back-to-back wins in four-point games will be huge for the tight race in the Pacific Division.
5. Circling back to Tkachuk, it’s important for the Oilers not to get themselves trapped in his web tonight. Though there’s certainly merit to Kassian standing up for himself after taking multiple runs from Tkachuk last game and it was embarrassing that Tkachuk wouldn’t fight back, the subsequent four-minute power-play was a game-changer. The Flames ended up scoring the winning goal on that man-advantage and it was a major momentum shift in the third period. The best way to get back at Tkachuk is by scoring goals and winning the game. He wants to start these scraps and turtle in order to get the team a power-play. That’s his game.
6. Tkachuk turns his scumbag meter way up in tight games against teams the Flames play often. He’s gotten into it with Kassian, as we know, but also the Kings, the Canucks, and the Sharks. Kassian was Tkachuk’s target a couple of weeks ago because of the scrap the teams had in the past. The goal was to wind up, throw those big hits, get Kassian angry, have him drop the gloves, turtle, and take the power-play. I have no doubts that eventually playing like this will come around to bite him, but, right now, the Oilers have to worry about beating the Calgary Flames more than they need to worry about beating Matthew Tkachuk. Winning games and making the playoffs is more important than putting a pest in his place.
7. Of course, there’s also a line that can be crossed. If Tkachuk were to take a big run at Connor McDavid, then yeah, you drop the gloves and make him pay for it. Hopefully, the players don’t have to police the game tonight. The refs need to be on the watch for dirty plays in what’ll be an emotionally-charged game. It’s a lot more difficult for Tkachuk to run around and play his troll game if the refs are putting him in the box.
8. Louie DeBrusk, who knows the Battle of Alberta and its physical side very well, had some interesting thoughts on the upcoming game, which he figures could result in an all-out brawl even with the Department of Player Safety head George Parros in attendance.
“The game has changed a lot over the years. Today, hockey is first. I truly believe that. I know we talk this up and beef it up and want it to boil over, but at the same time there are two points on the board that are very important.
“I think there’s definitely substance to it, there’s no question. Players know when something’s happened and they know when they’ve been wronged.
“So both teams have an argument that they were wronged, which could make it interesting. It’s whichever team wants to come out and push that button, make a point of saying we’re not happy with the way it went.
“Having Player Safety sitting in the stands saying ‘We’re going to be watching you and we don’t want this to go overboard,’ can make a difference, but sometimes when you get on the ice in the heat of battle, you don’t care who’s watching.”
As DeBrusk says, this is much more than a media-driven Battle of Alberta rivalry. We know the Oilers are fed up with Tkachuk, but the Flames are also bothered that Kassian, a legitimate fighter, went and pounded on Tkachuk. I mean, Tkachuk obviously brought this upon himself, but that’s what they’re upset about in Calgary.
9. It seems the Flames are also preparing for a physical game in Edmonton tonight as they called up Buddy Robinson from the AHL earlier this week. Robinson is 6’6″ so he gives the Flames some added size to their lineup. But, to be fair to him, he also has 42 points in 65 games in the AHL, so his play, not just his size, has earned him a call-up. This isn’t the same as the Flames calling up Anthony Peluso to face the Oilers last season.
10. Though it’s a small sample size, the Flames haven’t played particularly well since the last Battle of Alberta. They went on a three-game Eastern Canada road trip and got shut out by the Canadiens, barely edged out the struggling Leafs thanks to a huge game from David Rittich, and then lost to the lowly Senators. In their first game back from the break, the Flames lost 5-4 in the shootout to the Blues. On the other hand, the Oilers played back-to-back rock-solid games against the Predators and Coyotes after their loss to Calgary. Small sample size, of course, but interesting nonetheless.