Battle of Alberta, baby.
The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are set to meet in the NHL playoffs for the first time in 31 years with a trip to the Western Conference final on the line after dispatching the Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars, respectively, in a pair of Games 7s in Round 1.
It will be a showcase of one of the league's best rivalries, greatest talents and most efficient combinations in the sport. It should also be emotional, entertaining, gripping, and greasy.
The paths back to the B.O.A. after more than three decades took their tolls on both the Oilers and Flames. Edmonton needed a virtuoso performance from its captain, Connor McDavid, in the final two games versus the Los Angeles Kings after falling behind in the series. The Flames, meanwhile, overcame the efforts of the opening-round MVP, Stars netminder Jake Oettinger, squeezing out an overtime victory in a win-or-stay-home game at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Sunday night.
That said, it was relatively dominant for both Albertan outfits despite needing seven games to advance.
Only the Colorado Avalanche opened up a stronger goal differential on their opponent than the Oilers, who outscored the Kings 27-17 in the series. They also boast the playoff scoring leader, McDavid, and active goal-scoring leader, Evander Kane, who notched seven in the opening round. The Flames, meanwhile, only narrowly edged Dallas in aggregate scoring, but were second to Colorado in most shot-based measures of performance. Scoring their 15th goal of the series on their 569th shot attempt, the volume the Flames produced was both prolific and entirely necessary.
Because both teams went the distance, they are each dealing with attrition related to postseason play. The Oilers are probably most concerned with the Round 1 toll after Leon Draisaitl suffered a high-ankle sprain. It's historically not an easy injury to play through, but he logged over 20 minutes in Game 7 and picked up a crucial assist. It was obvious that Draisaitl was labouring, however, which will be difficult for the Oilers to overcome if it continues. Meanwhile Chris Tanev missed Game 7, which left the Flames defence extremely vulnerable — at least on paper. Tanev is Calgary's most reliable blueliner, and will be needed to help slow down the McDavid-Draisaitl tandem.
Finally, one plus on both sides has been their goaltending. Jacob Markstrom needed to be close to perfect to prevent the Flames from being Oettinger'ed. He had a .943 save percentage in Round 1, which is the best among remaining netminders. And though Mike Smith actively gave away one game versus the Kings, the former Flames starter put forth a valiant performance for the Oilers, running up a total Goals Saved Above Average that ranks second only to Oettinger.
What's on the line
Few series will have fanbases as wrapped up in it as this one will. In addition to a berth into the semifinal, bragging rights for a generation of fans on both teams is on the line here. The online discourse should be just as entertaining as the action on the ice.
For the players on each team, there are real stakes. The Oilers took some of the pressure off with the win over L.A., which is just the second series victory for the franchise in the McDavid era. Still, Edmonton must plunge deeper into the tournament and threaten to win the Stanley Cup in order to meet the potential tied to having two of the game's generational talents on the roster.
Calgary, meanwhile, is facing less of a certain future, which should be factoring into their motivation. Johnny Gaudreau is entering unrestricted free agency after a career season which arguably should have earned him a Hart nomination. Regardless of outcome, he could move on to another organization, which places immense importance on the run.
The Flames will win if...
They have an answer for McDavid defensively. If Tanev is unavailable, it will be tough for Darryl Sutter to formulate the necessary matchups to slow down the best player on the planet, who simply willed his team to back-to-back victories over L.A. to close out the Kings. A defensive corps half made up of Nikita Zadorov, Erik Gudbranson and Michael Stone could be there for the taking.
The Oilers will win if...
Mike Smith matches Jacob Markstrom's level. It's a tall ask, to perform at par with a Vezina nominee. But goaltending can't work against the Oilers, and it will if Smith fails to measure up.
Elias Lindholm will be dealing with a difficult matchup on virtually every shift. The Selke candidate helped drive the best production from a top line all season as the anchor between Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. His performance will go a long way in dictating which stars are having their way in the series.
The Fernando Pisani Award (Unsung Hero)
Hey, it maybe should be a depth forward in this case, but Brett Kulak meets the billing, too. The defenseman is one of several in-season decisions that have worked out incredibly well for Ken Holland, who was desperate for something to go right. The former Montreal Canadien quietly helped drive some real strong analytical numbers, finishing the series with over 60 percent expected goals.
Flames in six.
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