For the most part, lovers of old-school hockey must gaze wistfully towards the past these days as hitting and fighting have been minimized due to the speed of the NHL. Sure, you’ve got a high-end player like Jamie Benn carrying the torch in Dallas, but nearly every team used to have a guy like that – or at least one or two scrappers on the bottom lines.
Which is why it was so much fun to watch Calgary and Edmonton tee off on each other Saturday night in the latest installment of the Battle of Alberta. The Flames ended up winning 4-2, but the score was perhaps the fifth-most memorable event of the contest, which featured huge hits, nasty scrums, gallons of poison and the Sam Bennett-Darnell Nurse fight we didn’t know we all needed, which unfortunately was cut short by officials (side note: I know the moustache is for Movember, but Bennett looks like a crooked Chicago cop right now).
The Flames and Oilers have always hated each other and that’s super, but the rivalry has some great elements today, headlined by Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, already a pre-eminent pot-stirrer in just his third NHL campaign.
Tkachuk started the game by being on the wrong end of a dodgy Leon Draisaitl hit and later tried to fight the talented German, but Draisaitl wouldn’t bite. Then he jumped in to help Mikael Backlund when he was wrestled to the ice rodeo-style by none other than Connor McDavid, prompting a wild scrum. Soon after, Oilers goon Zack Kassian tried to fight Tkachuk, who wisely took some one-sided abuse that netted Kassian a triple-minor and a misconduct. Should Tkachuk have fought Kassian? No way. The value differential alone would have made it stupid, not to mention Kassian is a heavyweight fighter. Draisaitl should have fought Tkachuk earlier – that was the honest matchup in this scenario.
Now, the rivalry isn’t perfect right now because Calgary doesn’t have a guy who can fight Kassian or Milan Lucic (unless they want to dress Dalton Prout, which clearly they don’t) and Edmonton doesn’t have a pest like Tkachuk, but maybe the imbalance is OK. Otherwise, these teams have a lot in common.
At the top, you have some of the most gifted offensive talents in the game right now in McDavid and Draisaitl for Edmonton, with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan countering for Calgary. Not only do these guys make the puck sing, but if we’re being pragmatic here, they also offer the opponent someone to go to war over.
On top of that, both teams are flawed this year, so the rivalry is fair. Sure, the Flames are second in the Pacific Division, but they’ve already ceded the crease to David Rittich since Mike Smith has struggled so mightily this season and especially in the first half of the Edmonton game, the offense was needlessly complicated in its attack. The Oilers, meanwhile, are out of a playoff spot once again, while also swapping out their starting goaltender (Cam Talbot) for a wild card in KHL import Mikko Koskinen.
These teams play each other three more times, including the last game of the season and the points will matter to either one or both of the squads right until the end. That makes for a fantastic rivalry, since we know they’re already going to be at each other’s throats from the get-go. Saturday night was the tip-off, but if it was any indication, the remaining collisions will all be must-watch games. Just like old times…