The new Battle of Alberta
Playoffs, goalie fights, and turtles: Flames-Oilers matchups
have gone from showy disdain to outright war
By Austin Connelly
THE FIVE combined fights in the first four “Battle of Alberta” meetings this season seem to have reignited a passionate rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary. This culminated in a rare and electrifying goalie fight between the Oilers’ Mike Smith and Flames’ Cam Talbot who, ironically enough, switched jerseys in the offseason to join the opposite teams.
Often drummed up by the media, the ‘Battle of Alberta’ games of late have felt more like a Sunday matinée snoozer in New Jersey than a heated rivalry, but that intensity has reached new heights, which has important playoff implications.
Perhaps it was by chance, but the NHL didn’t schedule a first meeting between the two teams until the halfway mark of the season creating some meaningful hockey games down the stretch.
With three teams from the Pacific division set to make the playoffs and two wild card spots up for grabs, five of the Pacific teams are currently occupying those positions, only separated by five points, making the season finale showdown between the Oilers and Flames even more important.
The long-standing disdain between the Oilers and the Flames has evolved into a budding hatred between the new wave of players.
Tensions began boiling over in Game 2 on Jan. 11, after the Oilers dropped the first game in an embarrassing 5-1 game at home. They were desperate to even the series and pick up points in a packed Pacific division playoff race.
But that didn’t happen.
In a closely contested game, Flames’ forward Matthew Tkachuk took a controversial run at Oilers’ forward Zach Kassian, with the hit going unnoticed by the referees.
A similar blindside hit on Kassian happened later in the game by Tkachuk resulting in Kassian taking matters into his own hands and challenging him to a fight. An unwilling Tkachuk was of no concern to Kassian, who proceeded to pummel the young forward until he famously “turtled.”
Kassian received a two-game suspension. His return lined up with the next matchup against the Flames. Teammate Leon Draisaitl threw gasoline on the fire before the All-Star game, saying he would get off the ice when Tkachuk stepped onto the ice with him.
The turtle photo of Tkachuk had Oilers fans’ creativity flowing. The next time they saw each other, fans taunted Tkachuk by dressing up as turtles and ducking at every turn during the game, flooding social media and attracting the camera’s attention during the broadcast.
The next meeting had much more than that in store, including a fight between two unlikely players.
Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Flames forward Sean Monahan faced off in a spirited battle which was the unlikely predecessor to the much anticipated Kassian retaliation against Tkachuk.
Neither the turtles nor the fights were the biggest storyline of the night as everyone would be outshined by Flames goalie David Rittich. Winning the game on a diving poke-check in the shootout, he proceeded to throw his stick in the air while staring down Draisaitl in celebration, which was not appreciated by some of the Oilers players.
“It’s just disrespectful,” Draisaitl told the media during a post-game scrum. “We hit two posts and he’s celebrating like they won the Stanley Cup. Just show some respect. That’s my opinion.”
“Honestly I’m that guy who is showing my emotions, who is celebrating goals, who is celebrating wins, and it is what it is,” Rittich explained. “Why should I change myself? My personality is why I’m in the NHL, so I’m not going to change anything.”
The Oilers wouldn’t forget Rittich’s celebration as they chased him during the next meeting when they netted six total goals on him on route to an 8-3 drubbing of the Flames. On his way to the bench, the Oilers weren’t shy to give him an ear full on the long skate to the end of the bench.
“What goes around comes around,” said Oilers goalie Mike Smith postgame.
The rival teams haven’t crossed paths in the playoffs since the final round of the 1990 season. But that 30-year drought for hockey fans everywhere could be coming to an end.
Since the NHL flipped their playoff structure in an attempt to create more rivalries by pitting division rivals, the chance of watching a best-of-seven playoff series between Calgary and Edmonton has never been better.
It would be the most anticipated first round playoff matchup in decades and for the first time in a long time, the ‘Battle of Alberta’ would be all it is hyped up to be with game five set to close out the regular season on Apr. 4.