The question of which National Hockey League rivalry is the most competitive often sparks a bitter argument. In recent years, though, one rivalry that has been nowhere near the center of those arguments is the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – and for good reason.
Between 1983 and 1990, one of the two Alberta teams represented the Campbell Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. During four of those seasons, a playoff series between Calgary and Edmonton helped determine which of the teams won the Campbell Conference. Since 1990, the teams haven’t met in the post-season. Since the Salary Cap Era began in 2005-06, the two clubs have combined for just four trips out of the first round of the playoffs – two apiece. The 2016-17 season saw both teams make the playoffs in the same year for the first time in over a decade.
With both Alberta clubs seemingly on the upswing, when will the Battle of Alberta matter again?
When Their Season Series Is Competitive?
The realigning of the NHL’s schedule has regulated the number of Battles of Alberta in a given regular season. As Pacific Division rivals, the Flames and Oilers meet four or five times per season. The season series hasn’t been all that competitive for the most part. In the Salary Cap Era, the Flames won or tied every season series until Edmonton swept it in 2016-17 – coincidentally the first injury-free season for Connor McDavid with the Oilers.
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Rather than having one team dominate the season series, the Battle of Alberta would be more fun if both teams won a few games and the games were important in the standings. With Edmonton or Calgary, and sometimes both, spending a lot of time in the NHL’s basement throughout the last decade it’s been difficult for fans to emotionally engage in meaningless games. The first two Battles of Alberta of 2017-18 were one-sided in the Oilers’ favour, but at least held great importance for both clubs.
When Both Teams Make The Playoffs?
Let’s pretend you’re a 30-year-old hockey fan in Alberta. You will have seen both Alberta teams make the playoffs in the same year just twice since you turned 20. The Flames and Oilers both made the playoffs in 2006 and again in 2017. If the gold standard for a rivalry is a playoff meeting, the necessary pre-condition for that occurring is both teams making the playoffs. That’s only happened twice in the Salary Cap Era.
The other thing that needs to happen is both teams usually need to win a round, but tough matchups and under-performance in the playoffs have conspired against these two teams meeting.
When The Teams Meet in the Playoffs?
If you ask a Flames fan who the team’s most hated rival is, the answer is probably one of Vancouver, Anaheim or Los Angeles. The last two times the Flames escaped the first round, they did so after hard-fought series with the Canucks – both in 2004 and 2015. It’s easy for Flames players and fans to get fired up for games against Vancouver because the animosity comes from bitter post-season games. Anaheim has knocked the Flames out of the playoffs twice in recent years and enjoyed a seemingly never-ending home winning streak against the Flames. And the Flames made the playoffs often at the expense of the Kings, and usually after some very tight-checking late-season games to determine playoff qualifiers.
In Edmonton, they’ve also been trounced by the Ducks in the playoffs but they also have some long-standing animosity towards Dallas for ending many of their playoff trips in the first round.
The last time the Flames and Oilers met in the playoffs was 1991. The previously-mentioned 30-year-old hockey fan would have been four years old at the time. If the two clubs want their fans to genuinely care about the rivalry, and genuinely have some hatred about the other team and fan-base, then a playoff meeting is an absolute necessity.