Flames surging under new leadership while frustration growing for Oilers
Teams share same record but heading in opposite directions
For Calgary Flames fans, the prospect of turkey dinner with the Edmonton relatives is suddenly less cause for indigestion with the holidays fast approaching.
Sure, Edmonton Oilers fans understandably feel they won the Milan Lucic (three goals, eight points) for James Neal (15 goals, 22 points) trade. And sure, former Flames netminder Mike Smith has seven wins this season for Edmonton compared with just three for former Oilers goalie Cam Talbot in Calgary.
But with 35 games in the books, the Flames (18-13-4) and Oilers (18-13-4) are deadlocked for second place in the Pacific Division. After a torrid start, the Oilers have dropped their last four contests in large part due to goaltending lapses and porous defensive coverage. The surging Flames are 8-1-1 in their last 10 appearances thanks to contributions from all four lines.
Oilers fans held provincial bragging rights through the first two months of the 2019/20 campaign. Halfway through December, Flames fans no longer need to hang their heads.
Perhaps the underachieving Flames and the overachieving Oilers are simply finding their respective levels.
"People are happy," Flames defenceman Mark Giordano said of his fellow Calgarians. "It's been great. You can definitely feel the energy from the crowd.
"The expectations were high at the start of the year, and for good reason. We're a good team. People are behind us and they want us to do well. And there's frustration in all of us when it's not going well."
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Frustration mounting for Oilers
Up the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, frustration is mounting in the Alberta capital. Smith and Mikko Koskinen look mortal in the Edmonton net and the lack of depth appears to be catching up to the Oilers.
"Losing four in a row is not good enough," captain Connor McDavid told reporters after the Oilers fell 4-1 Saturday to the Toronto Maple Leafs. "We have to find a way to put some wins together here."
In one telling sequence Saturday, McDavid tore up the ice, sliced through the Toronto defence and just missed tucking the puck behind goalie Frederik Andersen.
Once again, McDavid took matters into his own hands and very nearly scored by himself.
But one man — or in Edmonton's case, two men with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — can't carry a team into the playoffs, even when they're 1-2 in NHL scoring.
"There's lots of try in our group," Oilers head coach Dave Tippett told reporters. "We just have to find ways to turn that try into better results."
Calgary also lost on Saturday, a 4-0 setback on home ice to the Carolina Hurricanes. But the Flames of today are nothing like the group that went 11-12-4 before Bill Peters resigned. (The head coach departed amid allegations of racist comments uttered a decade ago to minor-leaguer Akim Aliu.)
Under interim head coach Geoff Ward, Lucic, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan make up a small sample size of Flames who have regained their swagger.
"We've built something here that's pretty special in terms of coming back from our losing streak," centre Derek Ryan said, referencing Calgary's six-game slide in November. "I think we're in a pretty good spot."
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For reasons known only to the NHL schedule makers, the Oilers and Flames meet for the first time this season on Dec. 27 followed by two dates in January and one in February. The last regular-season game for both teams is set for April 4 in Calgary.
Those four inter-provincial clashes could prove the difference between early tee times and playoff berths.
As a result, you can expect the animosity between the fan bases to ratchet up in the weeks and months ahead.
"We for sure think we're a team that's going to get into those playoffs and hopefully go on a long run," Giordano said. "We want to be able to give that to our fans. But more importantly, here in the room, I think the guys are feeling better about themselves and playing better.".