Kulfan: Battle of Alberta sure to stoke passion for Canadian hockey fans
Detroit — Everywhere else around the NHL, especially in many passionate sports cities in the United States, this series isn't going to get much attention.
But in Canada — and obviously, especially, in the province of Alberta — this is going to be something else.
When the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames renew the Battle of Alberta Wednesday in the Western Conference semifinals, it'll be the first time they'll face each other in the playoffs in 31 years.
"I've been here for nine years and never had even a sniff of a chance to play them in the playoffs," said Calgary forward Johnny Gaudreau, who had the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 7 against Dallas. "It's pretty special and it'll be a lot of fun. It's going to be a pretty cool series."
The cities are three hours apart, have legendary hockey histories, and generally have an attitude about each other regardless of hockey.
To have two good hockey teams battling in the playoffs this spring is an unexpected treat.
"The entire province is excited about it," Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. "Obviously, there's a rivalry between the two cities that goes back multiple years, and not just in the sport of hockey. Everyone's excited about that. What I see is two good hockey teams that are going to get the opportunity to compete to head to the third round of the playoffs."
Edmonton goalie Mike Smith began his career in Calgary and has seen the passion on both sides.
“The hype is real life; there are a lot of passionate fans in Alberta for the Flames and Oilers,” Smith said. "As players, we’re trying not to get consumed by that. There is a lot of extra noise, but there is a focus with this group that we have job to do and it didn’t really matter who we were going to play against."
Both teams had to go to Game 7 to win their first-round series, with Calgary needing overtime before Gaudreau's dramatic game-winner.
The Flames were tested against Dallas but showed the mental and physical fortitude to win a playoff series.
“That was a hard series to win; it feels very good,” Calgary wing Matthew Tkachuk said. “But we don’t want to stop there.”
Here's a look at the matchups in the conference semifinals:
Carolina Hurricanes (Metropolitan No. 1) vs. New York Rangers (Metropolitan No. 2)
► Records: Carolina 54-20-8 (116 points); Rangers 52-24-6 (110 points)
► Regular-season series: Carolina 2-1-0; Rangers 1-2-0.
► First round: Carolina def. Boston in 7 games; Rangers def. Pittsburgh in 7.
► Storylines: The Hurricanes have home-ice advantage in this series mainly because of two late-season victories over the Rangers to win the regular-season division title. The Rangers appear to have a clear edge in net, with G Igor Shesterkin playing his best hockey as the Pittsburgh series evolved. Carolina's depth was a major factor in eliminating the Bruins. C Sebastian Aho only had five points (two goals, three assists) in the series victory over Boston, yet the Hurricanes got huge contributions so many other places, including D's Tony DeAngelo and Jaccob Slavin. Rangers D Adam Fox had 10 points against Pittsburgh and quarterbacks a dangerous New York power play. The Rangers showed mettle in rallying from a 3-1 series deficit against Pittsburgh and trailing in their last three victories (Games 5,6 and 7).
► Key player: Carolina D Tony De Angelo: The turbulent offensive defenseman was a huge key for the Hurricanes against Boston, though losing his cool at times. DeAngelo returns to face his former team, the Rangers, and hostile Madison Square Garden. This could be fun.
► Prediction: Carolina in 6.
Florida Panthers (Atlantic No. 1) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic No. 3)
► Records: Florida 58-18-6 (122 points); Tampa Bay 51-23-8 (110 points)
► Regular-season series: Florida, 2-1-1; Tampa 2-2-0.
► First round: Florida def. Washington in 6 games; Tampa def. Toronto in 7.
► Storylines: These two teams met for the Battle of Florida last season, with the Lightning winning in six games on their way to securing a second consecutive Stanley Cup. Florida is even better this season and showed its experience with a gutty series victory against Washington. Florida's depth was evident in that F Carter Verhaeghe led the Panthers in scoring with six goals and 12 points (franchise records). Tampa also showed its championship character by rallying from a 3-2 series deficit against Toronto. G Andrei Vasilevskiy was at his best in the Games 6 and 7 victories for Tampa.
► Key player: Tampa Bay F Brayden Point: Point has a lower-body injury, suffered in Game 7 against Toronto, and isn't available for the opener against Florida. It would be incredibly difficult for Tampa to win this series without Point in the lineup.
► Prediction: Tampa in 6.
Colorado Avalanche (Central No. 1) vs. St. Louis Blues (Central No. 3)
► Records: Colorado 56-19-7 (119 points); St. Louis 49-22-11 (109 points)
► Regular-season series: Colorado 2-1-0, St. Louis 1-2-0.
► First round: Colorado def. Nashville in 4 games; St. Louis def. Minnesota in 6.
► Storylines: This is where we see whether Colorado has gained maturity and experience, as the Avalanche have been eliminated each of the past three seasons in this second round. The Avalanche looked unbeatable in the opening series, totally dominating a good Nashville team. D Cale Makar (three goals, seven assists) and F Nathan MacKinnon (five goals) played to their elite level against Nashville. The Blues resembled the 2019 Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis team the way they wore down Minnesota in round one, led by G Jordan Binnington. The Blues had nine 20-goal scorers in the regular season and that depth showed against the Wild.
► Key player: St. Louis G Jordan Binnington: The 2019 hero reclaimed the starting job in Game 4 against Minnesota and won three consecutive starts to eliminate the Wild. If Binnington plays to his ability, the Avalanche are in for a difficult series.
► Prediction: Colorado in 7.
Calgary Flames (Pacific No. 1) vs. Edmonton Oilers (Pacific No. 2)
► Records: Calgary 50-21-11 (111 points); Edmonton 49-27-6 (104 points)
► Regular-season series: Calgary 2-2-0, Edmonton 2-2-0.
► First round: Calgary def. Dallas in 7 games; Edmonton def. Los Angeles in 7.
► Storylines: The Battle of Alberta is renewed for the first time since 1991, and for the sixth time overall. Edmonton has won four of the five. The history and tradition between these two rivals in incredible, many of the players having gone on to the Hall of Fame. Then again, talent isn't lacking in this series, either. Edmonton centers Connor McDavid (NHL-leading 14 points in the playoffs) and Leon Draisaitl are annual Hart Trophy contenders, and Calgary forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk were huge keys in helping the Flames eliminate Dallas. An area to watch is in net, where Calgary G Jacob Markstrom appears to have an edge on Edmonton G Mike Smith.
► Key player: Edmonton F Zack Kassian: Calgary is going to be physical and the Oilers don't have a ton of players to play that way. But Kassian can, and he could be a dramatic factor for the Oilers.
► Prediction: Calgary in 6.