The NHL’s first playoff Battle of Alberta in 31 years will be a game of keep away.
The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers will try to keep the puck off the sticks of each other’s top scorers by keeping it on the sticks of their own stars.
Two potent offences clash in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal starting Wednesday in Calgary.
Led by NHL points leader Connor McDavid and prolific teammate Leon Draisaitl for the Oilers, and Calgary’s top line of 40-goal men Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, this second-round series has the potential to be a high-scoring affair.
“Hopefully more on our side,” Flames defenceman Michael Stone said. “That’s the plan.”
Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom, who is a Vezina Trophy nominee, and veteran Oilers counterpart Mike Smith, who just three years ago tended Calgary’s net in the playoffs, will be prominent in determining goal volume.
Calgary (50-21-11) topped the Pacific Division ahead of runner-up Edmonton (49-27-6) in the regular season.
Their season series went 2-2, including Calgary’s 9-5 win March 26 at the Saddledome.
The Flames and Oilers are the two Canadian clubs still in contention for a Stanley Cup, and one of them will be eliminated.
Alberta’s NHL teams clash in the post-season for the first time since 1991. The novelty isn’t lost on the province or the players.
“I think people of Alberta have been waiting a long time for this, since 1991,” Flames forward Milan Lucic said. “Something to look forward to as a player and an athlete. Something you’ve got to have fun with.”
Both clubs are coming off first-round series that went to a Game 7 at home.
Gaudreau scored the overtime winner in a Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars, while McDavid scored and assisted on the other goal in Saturday’s 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
The Flames’ shot differential in a low-scoring series against Dallas was plus-92.
Calgary’s challenge in the second round is to bring the same shot mentality that wore down, barely, the Stars and workhorse goaltender Jake Oettinger while preventing the Oilers from doing the same to them.
“They have some world-class players, play with a lot of speed and they’re good off the rush, so we’ve got to be aware when people are on the ice and be ready to reload and stay above (the puck),” Lindholm said.
With McDavid and Draisaitl boasting a league-leading 44 and 41 power-play points respectively in the regular season, the Flames can’t afford to get baited into cheap penalties.
“The key for us is to stay five-on-five and stay out of the box,” Lindholm said. “They have some good chemistry and have a good power play. Stuff like that is going to be important.”
The Swedish winger was announced Tuesday as a finalist for the Selke Trophy that goes to the NHL’s top defensive forward.
“When the puck is in our defensive zone, he’s always in the right position,” Markstrom said of Lindholm. “He carries the puck up the ice and lets those guys, Johnny and Chucky down low, they’re so good at creating space and beating guys one on one.
“Then he’s in the slot and finished a lot of goals that way. It’s just everything he does, all over the ice, it’s great to see.”
Calgary winning its first playoff series since 2015 — and just its second in the last 17 years — was a mental post-season hurdle cleared, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said.
“It’s not a real good analogy that people use, but they didn’t have to bear the cross of the past, so that was the step,” Sutter said.
“Because you’re in the next round, it’s the next tier up. Should resonate how hard it is to make the playoffs, how hard it is to win a round.”
Flames defenceman Chris Tanev skated Tuesday after sitting out Sunday’s series finale with an undisclosed injury. Calgary’s top shutdown blue-liner appeared uncomfortable at times on Tuesday’s rushes.
“Don’t ask about injuries or who is playing anymore,” Sutter said. “Why should a coach get up and talk about somebody who is injured? That’s like saying ‘here’s another cookie.'”
Sutter’s 93 career playoff wins is one back of Pat Quinn for sixth all-time.