Our final look at the potential first-round matchups for the Edmonton Oilers examines more closely the Calgary Flames. A good old “Battle of Alberta” seems to be high on everyone’s Christmas list but the recent success and the turnaround season that saw the Flames go 19-6 since Feb. 1, 2017, has some of the Oilers nation worried. The NHL hasn’t seen the Flames square off against the Oilers in the playoffs since 1991 and perhaps it’s long overdue — but is it the best possible opponent for Edmonton?
The Odds: Decent
There are three teams bouncing around the playoff standings in the Western Conference like pinballs. Those teams are the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and the Edmonton Oilers. Just when one team seemed to be cementing their spot atop the Pacific Division, they would lose a game or two. Just when another starts to gain some momentum and climb the standings, they would falter.
The movement of these teams means the brackets may not be officially set until the last game of the season. While the Flames are now locked into one of the wildcard spots in the west, who they play is still very much unclear. Edmonton’s loss on Tuesday means they’re one step farther from winning the Pacific Division, but it’s not out of reach. If the Oilers can take points in their final three games while San Jose and Anaheim struggle, it’s possible.
The nice way to put it was that these two teams went opposite directions when the 2016-17 season started. Calgary was dreadful and the Oilers were hot. Over the course of the season, Edmonton stayed a consistent team and Calgary started going on tremendous runs of winning games and catapulted themselves back into the conversation. At one point in the season, they passed the Oilers in the regular season standings. A couple Flames’ losses and a winning streak by Edmonton in the final 15 games gave Edmonton back the advantage.
Calgary won their games on the back of an offensively talented blue line and some strong goaltending — their netminding hasn’t been terribly consistent for them this season, but when it was on-point, it was really good. They’ll need it to be good again come the postseason.
They are led at forward by Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Both were the Flames big ticket re-signings and both are playing the way top players should. Monahan and Gaudreau sit outside the top-35 in scoring for NHL point leaders, but both have the ability to turn up the heat and be among the best in the game for any seven-game stretch.
Edmonton has been led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all season. Both have been incredibly hot over their last 11 games and McDavid is on the verge of cracking the 100-point plateau this season. Draisaitl is at 75 and close to 30 goals.
In Tuesday’s disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the one bright spot seemed to be the stronger play by the second line as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins contributed with two goals and Milan Lucic with one other. The Oilers now have six forwards with over 40 points on the season and could potentially have five 20-goal players, three of whom could hit 30. Edmonton’s offense has been coming around and just the right time.
Defensively, the Oilers are deep, but not top-heavy like the Flames who have three deadly weapons on their blue line.
The top-six forward edge goes to Edmonton but the secondary scoring is pretty even. Both teams offer a mix of skill, speed and toughness and players who can put the puck in the net. Both are above average teams offensively, but the Oilers are better at keeping the puck out. Special teams are close with the Oilers edging out the Flames on the power play, but the Flames being slightly better on the penalty kill.
In the regular season series, it went Edmonton’s way. The Oilers won all four contests and all in regulation. Despite being outshot by the Flames, Edmonton outscored Calgary by 10 goals over those four games and the leaders were McDavid, Draisaitl and Jordan Eberle — each above a point-per-game pace. Playoffs are a different animal than the regular season, but the Oilers were effective in shutting down Calgary’s top players while the Flames didn’t have an answer for Edmonton’s scorers.
Where the Oilers really had the edge was in net. Both Cam Talbot and Laurent Brossoit were lights out better than Brian Elliot and Chad Johnson. It appears the Oilers didn’t really get a taste of the Flames improved netminding, but that may not matter if Edmonton stays hot. So too, Calgary didn’t have some of their key defensive acquisitions in the lineup. They’ve added pieces that have fit in like a glove and it’s no coincidence the overall play of the Flames has improved as a result.
Calgary is a much-improved team, but I still like the Oilers chances. Above all else and things being equal, it’s hard to pass up an opportunity for another “Battle of Alberta” matchup. I’m not sure anything trumps the excitement and atmosphere that series would bring.
Of all the teams we looked at, Anaheim or San Jose might seem the best matchup in terms of the Oilers speed being a huge advantage, but Calgary would get the goosebumps going. A win over the Flames would mean just that much more.