Battle of Alberta has NHL young stars on both sides ready to shine
'It’s been a long summer,' says Oilers captain Connor McDavid. 'Everyone’s starting at zero'
Some hockey fans view the Battle of Alberta like a modern-day Hatfields and McCoys, two rival clans forced to live in close proximity who, so the legend goes, hate each other's guts.
During the opening skirmishes last year, the Hatfields of Edmonton dominated the feud, thanks to a young gun named Connor McDavid, who potted a pair of goals in the season opener at spanking new Rogers Place to lead his group to a 7-4 victory over their perennial provincial rivals.
On Wednesday night, in the same building where it all started last year, the rivalry resumes.
But this time, both teams are riding higher expectations than have been seen in these parts for years.
How high? Well, a month ago, Sportsnet published a story with this headline: "Could the Oilers or the Flames win the Stanley Cup this season?"
When was the last time anyone wondered that?
Oilers favoured to win division
Though no one can properly answer the question posted above, the truth is that both teams look primed to improve.
Oddsmakers have the Oilers favoured to win the Pacific Division.
We'll have to wait more than six months to find out if the smart money was really all that smart.
Still, there's no arguing that Alberta's hockey rivalry should be fun to watch this year.
The Flames have young stars up front — Johnny "Hockey" (Gaudreau), Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, and one of the best defensive corps in the league.
The Oilers have young stars of their own — including the brightest in the sky (that McDavid guy), along with Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and a surprising rookie winger named Kailer Yamamoto.
Back in old days, in the Oilers glory days, before any of these players were born, Edmonton often beat Calgary like Ma Kettle whomping a dusty rug. The Oilers were often faster and more skilled with the puck.
Now both teams are fast. Now both teams can score.
If Cam Talbot plays like he did last year, tied for the league lead with 42 wins, then the Oilers might have a edge in goal. Then again, maybe veteran Mike Smith, late of the Arizona Coyotes, really is the answer the Flames have been searching for in net.
If that's the case, these teams could be pretty evenly matched.
For one of the newest Flames, defenceman Travis Hamonic, Wednesday evening will be his introduction to a long-standing tug-of-war for provincial bragging rights.
"Obviously everyone's excited on both sides of the province," Hamonic said after the morning skate at Rogers Place. "It's a fun way to start the year off. They've got a ton of skill up front, and there's a bunch of guys who can hurt if you give them some space."
Gaudreau said he expects a fast game played at lightning speed, and his team wants to make sure it gets off to a better start than it did last year.
"I think we got better in the summer and picked up some good players. I think we feel a lot more comfortable coming out of this training camp."
Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan said Hamonic and Smith are big additions for his team heading into the new season.
The Flames were slow out of the gates last season, winning only five of their first 15 games. But as the season went by, the team got stronger and finished up by winning 17 of its last 22 games.
The Flames bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, while the Oilers took the Anaheim Ducks to seven games in the second round.
Guns are loaded
But all of that is in the past. Tonight, the guns are loaded and the feud begins again.
The Oilers and Flames will meet five times this season, twice in Edmonton and three times in the now-aging Saddledome. Asked if tonight's game is already key, Draisaitl wouldn't really rise to the bait.
"I think every game is huge," he said. "You need every point you can get."
Yes, he has heard and read the early reviews that have his team favoured to top the division.
As for the Edmonton captain, the 20-year-old star who led the league in scoring last season, well, he knows the opener is a big game and a good test of where the teams stands.
"It's been a long summer," McDavid said. "Everyone's starting at zero and it's exciting that a new season is here. Everyone knows what's at stake here tonight."
That includes the fans.
'Dream come true'
Oilers fan Josh Petersen drove 13 hours from Manitoba, with his girlfriend, Jayenna Draper, along for the ride, to see his favourite team play live for the first time.
The 19-year-old spent last spring glued to his TV during two playoff rounds.
"It's definitely a dream come true," he said, standing outside Rogers Place hours before game time. "My dad is a Jets fan, so he kind of gives it to me a little bit. But he has nothing to show right now."
Petersen took Draper to SportChek and bought her an orange Oilers T-shirt to wear.
"I'm told there's no bathroom breaks, we're staying in our spots," she said. "I'm pretty excited."
Across the street at the Baijiu Bar, co-owner Justin Hill is ready for the NHL season rush.
"We do get a very big before and after [game] rush," he said. "As soon as that game's over, we just get hit like a brick wall."