Say what you will about the NHL’s current playoff format, but the interdivisional 2-3 first-round matchups are perfectly built to inflict maximum emotional trauma (particularly if you’re a Maple Leaf) and foster ugly feelings between rivals (like the Sharks and the Golden Knights). And no two teams are better suited for that boiling pot of high-stakes hatred than the current 2 and 3 seeds in the Pacific Division, the Flames and the Oilers. So they better frickin’ meet come playoff time!
Regular season hockey gets a bad rep sometimes, but Wednesday night’s Battle of Alberta could have been, if not quite a legit Game 7, at least a Game 4 with the series 2-1. The Flames took it 4-3 in a shootout, but the 65 minutes leading up to that were a strap match where Edmonton refused to let Calgary ever get any breathing room, as the score oscillated between a Flames lead and a tie all night. When Oilers defenseman Matt Benning, in his return from two months on the shelf, showed some uncharacteristic individual brilliance in the offensive zone to score the tying goal in the third, it felt like the kind of unlikely hero-making moment you don’t usually see until April.
But this was not simply a close hockey game—it was a grouchy one, too. A couple of surprising boxers dropped the gloves late in the first, as Sean Monahan and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went at it with inspiring intensity and determination—there’s a point in their fight when they absolutely could stop and let the refs come in, but they don’t. And just seconds later, Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk punched out their personal animosity with a gentlemanly consensual scrap to get some closure from the last time these two met, which was also furious and thrilling. Here’s a violence-only highlight reel via Sportsnet, because Canadians know what they want:
More often than not, the Flames and the Oilers are wildly entertaining when they get on the ice together, but aside from the pure talent that would be on display in Edmonton’s dynamic duo and Calgary’s quartet of brilliant young forwards, this match-up has all the ingredients necessary for a competitive series that’ll leave an awful taste in one city’s mouth. There’s physical proximity, cultural differences, guys that legit don’t like each other, two fanbases desperate to recapture their ’80s glory days, and the fact that a postseason Battle of Alberta hasn’t happened since 1991. (That’s before Johnny Gaudreau was even born, let alone Connor McDavid.) These two teams square off twice more this season—including on Saturday, where the frustration will still be fresh— but if we’re lucky, there will be seven more battles after that.