The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames are set to square off Wednesday in the first Battle of Alberta in the postseason since 1991. The teams met four times during the regular season and split the series 2-2. Each captured victories in Game 7s over the weekend. Backed by a superstar effort from Connor McDavid, the Oilers knocked off the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 to win their series. The franchise rallied after falling behind 3-2 following their Game 5 loss. On the flip side, the Flames narrowly escaped the Dallas Stars. Finally able to solve Jake Oettinger, (the 23-year-old made 64 stops in the loss), Johnny Gaudreau’s overtime goal helped Darryl Sutter and company advance out of the first round for the first time in seven years. The puck drops for Game 1 between these teams on Wednesday at 10:30pm EDT.
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Led by Jacob Markstrom between the pipes, the Vezina Trophy finalist was rock solid for Calgary in the opening round. The 32-year-old built off his strong regular season. Markstrom set a franchise record for the highest save percentage in a playoff series. Posting a spectacular .944 mark, he surpassed longtime Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
Bouncing back after a rocky performance during their opening game against the Kings, Mike Smith posted solid numbers for the Oilers during their last six contests. The veteran netminder helped the team charge back into the series, ultimately recording a shutout in game seven. He stopped 59 of 61 shots during the final two matchups. Playing with a lot of confidence heading into round two, the 16-year veteran will be key for Jay Woodcroft’s group if they hope to knock off their bitter in-province rival.
The Oilers got their No. 1 defenseman back on Saturday Night. Darnell Nurse missed Game 6 after being suspended one game for headbutting Phillip Danault. Leading the way for Edmonton through one round, the former seventh overall pick is averaging more than 21 minutes per night. He is joined on the top pair by offseason acquisition Cody Ceci, the longtime Ottawa Senator who has been playing some of the best hockey of his career of late. He has amassed six points in seven games while racking up 11 takeaways and eight hits. Rounding out their group, trade deadline acquisition Brett Kulak has helped stabilize the right side of the team’s core. Playing alongside Tyson Barrie, the Vancouver Giants alum has amassed a 68.4 defensive zone start percentage.
As sturdy as any team in the playoffs on the back end, the Flames can limit higher danger chances in their own zone through their structured play. They held Dallas to just 12 goals during their opening-round series. The team relies heavily on Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson. The former is leading the team in ice time with over 23 minutes per night on average, while the latter has registered an 8.3 percent shooting percentage. Inserted into the lineup before the start of Game 4, Michael Stone has also impressed mightily. Playing alongside Oliver Kylington on Calgary’s second pairing, he has recorded three points in four games while also helping to kill penalties.
One of the hottest power plays during the regular season, the Flames were clicking at a 22.9 percent rate, the 10th-highest mark in the league. However, they have failed to find success with the extra man early in the postseason. Converting at just an 8.3 percent clip, the team has scored only twice with the man advantage (24 opportunities).
Unlike Calgary, the Oilers have remained red hot on the power play. Trailing only the Colorado Avalanche, the group has converted on seven of their 19 opportunities. Leading the way, star winger Leon Draisaitl has already found the back of the net three times. This is likely to come down to a battle of special teams as the series winds down. Both groups have been extremely dependable on the penalty kill. Each of them is killing off over 87 percent of their opportunities when down a man.
There is no shortage of star power in this series. Both Edmonton and Calgary have deep forward groups with supreme talent on their top lines. One of the best trios all year long, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Gaudreau combined for over 300 points to help guide Calgary. Helping push the franchise into the second round, they scored two of the three goals while combining for five points in their Game 7 victory. Additionally, winger Andrew Mangiapane has assembled the finest season of his five-year NHL career. Surpassing the 30-goal mark for the first time, the Bolton, ONT native racked up 35 tallies and 20 assists in 72 games. With Sutter choosing to roll four lines, the team will need a strong performance out of its depth forwards in what should be a tight-checking series.
Once again, guided by the play of the game’s best player in McDavid, the two-time Hart Trophy winner was brilliant for Edmonton in the first round. He was on the ice for 20 of the Oilers’ 27 goals while racking up 14 points. Refusing to let his team fall to Los Angeles, the former first overall pick racked up five points during the series final two games, while playing over 24 minutes each night. Needing other players to produce if they are going to knock off Calgary, one situation to watch will be the health of Draisaitl. The 26-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain against the Kings after being pulled over backwards in a scrum.
With Gaudreau, Lindholm, and Tkachuk at the center of attention heading into game one on Wednesday night, one name to watch for the Flames is winger Tyler Toffoli. A one-time Stanley Cup Champion, the former Montreal Canadien was all over the ice for the team against the Stars. Posting 23 shots on goal during the series, the 30-year-old opened the scoring for the team on Saturday.
Likewise, for the Oilers, all eyes figure to be on McDavid and Drasaitl after the duo was dynamic to open up the postseason. However, Edmonton needs to sustain their production from other areas of the lineup if they are going to advance. Continuing to provide dividends for the team after they inked him to a one-year deal in January, Evander Kane remains the x-factor for the franchise. He amassed nine points in seven games against Los Angeles, and if the veteran winger can provide both production on the offensive end while remaining a physical presence, it should set the team up for success.
Still one of the best in the business behind the bench in his 20th season in the league, Sutter is back in the postseason for the 15th time. Helping Calgary rebound after a disastrous season a year ago, he led the team to their highest single-season point total since 1988-1989. Sutter has helped install both accountability and a championship pedigree inside the locker room.
Promoted as the replacement for the departed Dave Tippett in February, Woodcroft has impressed mightily since taking over the head coaching duties for the Oilers. Leading the team to a 19-4-2 mark during the regular season’s final 25 games, the Toronto, ONT native has given his bottom-six larger roles and increased ice time. This is in an effort to get them into big-game situations and create confidence.
For just the second time in the last 30 years, these two teams will meet in the postseason in the Battle of Alberta. Home to two of the deepest rosters in the game, there will be no shortage of star power in this series. Edmonton is looking to get back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2006. Meanwhile, Calgary aims to get past the second round for just the second time in the last two decades.
Expected to be a physical back-and-forth series, the Flames will be tasked with trying to slow down McDavid and their opponent’s high-flying offense. On the other hand, the Oilers will attempt to stifle Calgary’s explosive top line while taking a crack at solving Markstrom. Destined to go the distance, give me the team with home-ice advantage.
Series Prediction: Calgary 4-3
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