It has been 31 years since Alberta experienced a Stanley Cup playoffs Battle of Alberta, but the past three days have made it feel like 35 years. The anticipation, angst and excitement for both Oilers and Flames fans is at a level they haven’t enjoyed in decades. And it will only increase once the puck is dropped tonight.
Players are both sides have tried to downplay the significance of this series. I get it. Staying poised and in the moment is vital in the playoffs, but Matthew Tkachuk did admit the Saddledome was the loudest he’s ever heard it in game seven and expects that to be the same tonight. Fans lucky enough to have watched the 1980s and early 1990s rivalry know how special it is, while the younger generation of fans should be pumped to finally get to see it live.
The emotion is different.
The energy in the entire province is a mix of disdain for the opposition and nervous excitement for the team they root for. Some households are split on their allegiance, and that will make watching the games enjoyable. It is a special time, and something hockey fans in the province deserve after two years of a pandemic.
The players also deserve it. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has played 719 regular season games over 11 seasons and he finally will see the Flames in the playoffs. He played his junior hockey smack dab in the middle of the two cities, in Red Deer, and while he wasn’t born when the first five Oilers/Flames playoff series were happening he has watched videos and spoke to fans who have. While he was calm and poised on the outside in his press conference this morning, you know he is fired up for this opportunity starting tonight.
He and his line will play a pivotal role. Jay Woodcroft has relied heavily on RNH, Josh Archibald and Derek Ryan in the defensive zone. Archibald and Ryan (28%) and RNH (33%) had the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts v. the Kings in round one. Expect more of that in this series.
Those suggesting Jesse Puljujarvi should play on that line instead of Josh Archibald are overlooking a rather obvious stat. Woodcroft doesn’t start Puljujarvi in the defensive zone. He had five defensive zone starts and 19 in the neutral zone and 22 in the offensive zone. He started 81.4% of his stationary shifts in the offensive zone. In the regular season he was at 63%. He was never been used in that role, so why would you ask him to do it now? You need to look deeper than just CF% of xGF% to determine the role a player fits in. It would be unfair to suddenly ask Puljujarvi to play in a role he hasn’t played all season.
Archibald had nine starts in the O-zone, 11 in the neutral zone and 23 in the defensive zone. Ryan had 10 O-zone, 12 N-zone and 25 in D-zone. It is clear Woodcroft has a specific role for them, and plans to start them in similar role tonight.
Draisaitl – McDavid – Yamamoto
Kane – McLeod – Hyman
Archibald – RNH – Ryan
Puljujarvi – – Kassian
Nurse – Ceci
Keith – Bouchard
Kulak – Barrie
McDavid’s 14 points in the first round was tied for 10th most points in a playoff series. Rick Middleton had 19 with Boston in 1983. Wayne Gretzky (18 in 1985), Jari Kurri (15 in 1985) and Gretzky (15 in 1987) are top three in Oilers franchise history.
Alex Ovechkin (2009), Sidney Crosby (2010) and Claude Giroux (2012) are the only other active players with 14 in a series. McDavid dominated and I expect another great series from him. Not only did he produce points, he was also engaged defensively and physically. He was fourth on the Oilers with 21 hits, which was tied for 45th in the NHL.
“I was really impressed by McDavid’s coming-of-age play in games six and seven,” said three-time Stanley Cup champion Craig Muni on my radio show yesterday. “He can always control the game offensively, but when he initiated the hitting and took the team on his shoulders in all facets it was impressive and showed great leadership.” McDavid’s huge hit on Sean Durzi set the tone for game seven.
McDavid has dominated the league offensively since he arrived, but v. the Kings he added a more physical element to his game and it was very noticeable.
“It’s a group mentality, said McDavid. “We obviously want to be a physical group and I’m part of the group. If other guys are going to lay it on the line, obviously I have to do the same thing. That’s what it is.”
Being physical isn’t that easy. Part of it is a willingness, but also delivering a hit properly is a skill, and McDavid has shown he knows how to deliver a clean one. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but it was impressive and I expect him to be involved in every facet this series.
Gaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk
Mangiapane – Backlund – Coleman
Dube – Jarnkrok – Toffoli
Lucic – Lewis – Ritchie
Hanifin – Andersson
Kylington – Tanev
Zadorov – Gudbranson
The Flames could go 11-7 as well and play Michael Stone and sit Brett Ritchie. I think they go with the extra defenceman tonight just to protect themselves in case Chris Tanev can’t get through the game. He did skate again this morning, but some folks around the Flames aren’t sure Tanev will dress. I sense he will.
Tkachuk, like most of the Oilers, isn’t old enough to remember the real battles, but he was the main catalyst to re-energizing the BOA a few seasons ago. You need villains on both sides and he is the perfect one for Calgary. He shared what was his first memory/introduction to the BOA.
“My first memory was the new rink, first game in the new rink in Edmonton,” he said. “Sold out for warmups. 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. I don’t think I’m ready for this. I just had to get that game under my belt. That was my first memory.”
Tonight more memories will be made for players and fans. It should be great.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: The energy will be electric and the game doesn’t disappoint. Calgary wins 4-3.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid continues his two-points-game average in the playoffs.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Each team gets four power plays.
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