Here it is, the moment we’ve all been waiting for — the first Battle of Alberta of the 2021 season.
The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames play each other a whopping 10 times over the next three months. If last year’s BoA was any indication, things are bound to get spicy.
1. It’s been over a year since these two teams played each other. The last Battle of Alberta came on Feb. 1, 2020, and it was an epic one. The Oilers exploded for eight goals, Ethan Bear had a spirited scrap with Matthew Tkachuk, and Mike Smith and Cam Talbot dropped the gloves at centre ice.
The 2019-20 season was unforgettable for many reasons, both good and bad, but this game was the shining point from that campaign that Oilers fans will never forget.
2. That aforementioned 8-3 victory in Calgary was also the finale of a series in which the Oilers and Flames played each other three times over the span of three weeks. The beef had been boiling for quite some time, with Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk at the centre, but those three games in a short period of time really pushed things into overdrive.
The first game on Jan. 11 featured Tkachuk taking a run at Kassian and then the latter going berzerk on the former. In the second game on Jan. 29, Tkachuk answered the bell and fought Kassian, but the game was highlighted by Flames’ goaltender David Rittich flipping his stick after stopping Leon Draisaitl to win the game in the shootout. And, finally, on Feb. 1, all hell broke loose.
3. I figure that not having crowds in the stands will take some of the intensity out of these games, but the Oilers and Flames seeing each other 10 times over the next three months is surely going to result in some chaos. I don’t know how we’re ever going to go back to a world without the All-Canadian Division.
4. Speaking of chaos, as much fun as it is to watch as a spectator, the Oilers are better off if they don’t play into Tkachuk’s game. I remember a Battle of Alberta from back in November of 2018 in which Edmonton went up 2-0 early in the second period but Calgary ended up coming back and winning the game 4-2 due because the Oilers spent a lot of time in the penalty box.
If the Flames are asleep, Tkachuk will try to wake the team up with his antics on the ice. The Oilers are better off ignoring it and not giving Calgary opportunities on the power-play. The Flames are 11th in the league with a 22.7 power-play percentage while the Oilers’ penalty kill ranks 25th in the league at 73.2 percent.
5. These 10 games are also going to be key in determining who makes the playoffs. Three weeks into the season, it appears as though the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are the two teams to beat in the North, while the Senators are unsurprisingly stuck in the basement. In the middle, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Vancouver will be battling with each other for two playoff spots.
Every game is important in this unique 56-game season in which teams are exclusively playing division rivals, but this 10-game head-to-head offers the Oilers an opportunity to create distance in the standings between themselves and another team vying for a playoff spot. Beating up on Calgary would make life a lot easier for the Oilers.
6. The Flames own a 4-5-1 record through 10 games this season and sit fifth in the North Division based on points percentage, one spot behind the Oilers. They started off 2-0-1, went nearly a week without playing a game, and have just one regulation win in seven games since. Most recently, they suffered a commanding loss at the hands of the Jets by a score of 4-1.
7. It isn’t easy to draw sweeping conclusions based on a 10-game sample size, especially when teams came into the season rusty not having played any pre-season games, but the Flames appear to be a team that struggles to score goals and one who will live and die with their goaltending.
8. The Flames rank 28th in the league in terms of even-strength goals per 60 minutes, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, and Detroit Red Wings. Only once have the Flames managed to score more than three goals in a game this year and that came in a 5-2 victory over the Canucks back on Jan. 18. Half of their games this season have featured two goals for or fewer.
Just about all of Calgary’s offence is coming from the top of the team’s lineup. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm have 11 points each and Matt Tkachuk and Sean Monahan have eight points each.
Back in 2018-19 when the Flames finished with the best record in the Western Conference, they buried the second-most goals in the league thanks to a deep attack that featured three lines that could score.
The play of both Mikael Backlund and Derek Ryan has declined with age, Sam Bennett can’t find a role on the team and wants out, and Mark Jankowski, Garnet Hathaway, and Michael Frolik have moved on. Those are six of the 11 players who scored at least 10 goals for the Flames in 2018-19. The team might get more from Backlund or Bennett or they could get a breakout from somebody like Dillon Dube, but this Flames team is not that Flames team. The depth simply isn’t there like it was a couple of years ago.
9. Another key difference between the Flames of a couple of years ago and the Flames now is the team’s top pairing. Mark Giordano won the Norris Trophy in 2019 after putting up 74 points and boasting an impressive 79-to-51 on-ice goal differential. Giordano is now 37 years old and his defensive partner, T.J. Brodie, left the team in free agency.
Filling in the always-underrated Brodie’s place has been Rasmus Andersson and the new pairing has struggled. They’ve been outshot (123-to-105) and outscored (5-to-4) at even strength and boast an ugly 39.8 Expected Goals For Percentage (which considers both shot volume and quality).
Is this a reality of adjusting to a new partner without a pre-season? Or is Giordano unable to do the lifting of a top-pairing defenceman anymore?
10. On the other hand, the Flames have received excellent goaltending from Jacob Markstrom, their big off-season addition from last fall. Calgary inked Markstrom to a six-year deal worth $36 million, a major investment for a goaltender with some legitimate injury concerns, but he’s looked excellent thus far.
Markstrom owns a .920 save percentage through eight starts, which is roughly how he performed with the Canucks over the course of 43 games in 2019-20. Good goaltending can compensate for a lot of mediocrity.