For the first time since 1991, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers will take the Battle of Alberta to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After the Flames’ hard-fought overtime win against the Dallas Stars in Game 7, they set up a date on Wednesday night in Calgary with their provincial counterparts, renewing hostilities between two teams that have one of the most heated rivalries in NHL history. It will be a war, both mentally and physically, but there are three key elements that the Flames can exploit to try and get the upper hand on the high-flying Oilers.
Get to Mike Smith Early and Often
There will be a familiar face between the pipes to start the series, as former Flame Mike Smith will look to continue his resurgence against his former team. Smith started all seven games in the Oilers’ Round 1 series victory against the Los Angeles Kings, putting up a .938 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.29 goals-against average (GAA) to go along with shutouts in Games 2 and 7.
However, after the Stars’ goalie Jake Oettinger’s performance in Round 1, I think the Flames (and their fans) will be happy to face anyone but the 23-year-old American in between the pipes. Smith only played 28 games during the regular season, but he was on fire to finish the year, winning his last eight starts and throwing up a .963 SV% and two shutouts.
Ever since his 40th birthday on March 24, Smith has looked like the best version of himself, but he can still give up a weak goal here and there and still has a very adventurous puck-handling style that can lead to giveaways. The Flames put a lot of pucks on net against Oettinger and the Stars, and if they can continue to put up similar numbers, there’s a chance that the veteran will falter, especially after a relatively light regular-season workload.
Take Away McDavid’s Space
This is going to be the Flames’ most difficult task against the Oilers. Connor McDavid looks every bit like the best player in the world right now, and the Hart Trophy finalist lit up the Kings all series long. Through seven games, he amassed an impressive 14 points. Stopping him is unbelievably difficult and, at times, impossible, but the best chance the Flames have is to not let him build up speed through the neutral zone because he does not need much of a runway to get to a full head of steam.
Here McDavid accelerates almost immediately above the top of the circle and leaves noted speedster Andreas Athanasiou in the dust to set up a Leon Draisaitl tap-in. If the Flames want to succeed in limiting his impact, especially entering the zone, they will have to keep him from getting up to speed with open ice in front of him. Easier said than done, but it needs to be done at least to some degree if they want to keep him from dominating the series.
Limit Oilers’ Secondary Scoring
Draisaitl and McDavid are two of the best players in the world. They will beat you at some point. But what the Flames can prevent is the Oilers’ secondary weapons from hurting them. Evander Kane rewarded the Oilers’ faith in him with an explosive goal-per-game performance in Round 1. Cody Ceci surprisingly notched six points in the series, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipped in with five, as did Evan Bouchard. The more the Flames can eliminate and prey on the (sometimes) lack of depth on Edmonton’s roster, the more the Oilers will be forced to rely on their dynamic duo.
Zach Hyman and Kailer Yamamoto both had relatively quiet series, but they are capable of taking advantage of their opportunities. The Flames need to ensure that there isn’t a certain player in this group or on the rest of the Oilers’ roster that will put up numbers similar to the seven goals and nine points that Kane did against the Kings. Every member of Edmonton’s supporting cast that produces offensively makes the task of keying in on the dynamic duo that much harder.
The best-case scenario is that the Flames make life hard for Draisaitl and McDavid as the rest of the Oilers struggle to create offense and, in turn, rely more and more on their high-end talent, who will eventually tire out throughout the series. If Calgary can do that, they should have a shot to reach their first Western Conference Final since 2004.
Jacob is a Flames writer who has been covering hockey at both the collegiate and NHL levels for the last 8 years, and is a graduate of Western University.