Saturday, January 16, 2021

Flames, Oilers will focus on prep, not punches in NHL exhibition game

Flames, Oilers will focus on prep, not punches in NHL exhibition game

Don’t expect mayhem and madness when the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers hit the ice Tuesday for a first-of-its-kind summer instalment of the NHL’s Battle of Alberta.

EDMONTON — There will be intensity. Both sides have promised that.

There should be some lingering animosity, too.

Just don’t expect mayhem and madness when the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers hit the ice Tuesday for a first-of-its-kind summer instalment of the NHL’s Battle of Alberta.

This provincial rivalry is certainly renewed, but knuckle-chucking netminders Cam Talbot and Mike Smith will not be meeting at centre ice for a rematch.

Right now, the only fight on Talbot’s mind is the internal battle to be between the pipes — not spectating as the second-stringer — when the Flames open a best-of-five play-in series against the Winnipeg Jets this weekend.

Saturday’s Game 1 is the official start of this unprecedented bubble bonanza. The Flames-Oilers exhibition is just a friendly, even if that’s not what some fans are imagining.

“We have to treat Tuesday like a playoff game,” declared Flames alternate captain Matthew Tkachuk. “Because if we limp into that game, if we just go in with an easy mentality and not a playoff mentality, kind of like we have the last couple times going into playoffs, where we let off the gas right before, then we’re probably going to have a similar result.”

If Tuesday’s tuneup were to turn chaotic, Tkachuk would play a central role.

He and Edmonton’s Zack Kassian aren’t exactly buddy-buddy. There hasn’t been hockey in what feels like forever, but nobody has forgotten that feud.

While Tkachuk and Kassian won’t be hanging out together at the ping-pong table or pop-up sushi joint inside the NHL’s Western Conference bubble, both agree this isn’t the time to establish Alberta’s toughest troupe.

It’s not about settling any scores from January or February.

Far from it.

Tuesday’s exhibition against the Oilers — the action from an empty Rogers Place will be live on Sportsnet at 8:30 p.m. MT — is more about the Flames setting a tone for themselves.

It’s about Johnny Gaudreau proving his training-camp sizzle — the wee winger was flying around in Phase 3 — will translate.

It’s about getting up to game speed and getting in sync with their defensive-zone details. Oilers superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will certainly put that to the test.

Zack Kassian of the Edmonton Oilers fights Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames at the Saddledome on Jan. 11, 2020. Derek Leung/Getty Images

Derek Leung /

Getty Images

And it is, of course, about picking a go-to goalie. David Rittich logged the bulks of the starts this past winter, but Talbot was coming on strong in the weeks before the pandemic pause.

They’ll likely split the crease against the Oilers. Since there’s no media access to practices or morning skates, interim head coach Geoff Ward may not name his Game 1 starter anytime soon, choosing to keep the Jets guessing in the lead-up to their qualification showdown.

“We want to see a high work level by our guys. We want to see attention to detail. And we want to see some execution,” Ward said, summarizing his wish list for Tuesday’s tuneup tilt. “If we get to those three things, check all those boxes, then we feel like the exhibition game will be successful for us.”

Ward mentioned during Training Camp 2.0 that a matchup with the Oilers would be a good measuring stick for the Flames’ special-teamers, praising their power play in particular.

The penalty-killers — on both sides — would normally be busy in a Battle of Alberta, but we would be stunned if Tuesday is not relatively tame.

“I think there’s going to be a ton of intensity,” predicted Flames captain Mark Giordano on Monday’s virtual media conference from inside the hub-city bubble. “First off, we’re playing the Oilers, obviously our biggest rival. And we all know as players that we have to use this game to get ready for playoffs, for the qualification round.”

“For sure, there’s a rivalry involved. They don’t like us and we don’t like them,” agreed fellow Flames rearguard Rasmus Andersson. “But it’s another game and it’s an important one for our team to get ready for the season to start.”

Fear not, fans, the Battle of Alberta isn’t going to lose its oomph.

Tuesday, however, promises to be more of a prep than a punch-up. It’s not often — or ever — that you say this about an exhibition, but it’s too important for extracurriculars.

“There is so much at stake for both teams going into the playoffs that everyone is going to be smart,” said Kassian, whose crew is readying for a best-of-five against the Chicago Blackhawks. “I don’t think there is going to be anything like the last few games you saw.

“The Stanley Cup playoffs aren’t the time to get redemption. It isn’t the time to take stupid penalties or screw around. It’s two teams focused on their play-in rounds. That’s going to be the main focus for us.”

Finally … something he and Tkachuk can agree on.

“I think we have to use that game Tuesday, win or lose, to just play the way that we have play to be successful against the Winnipeg Jets,” Tkachuk said. “That has nothing to do with Winnipeg and everything to do with us. We have to just really, really dial it in, play a hard physical game and take advantage of our opportunities and not give up much defensively. And then we’ll feel confident going into Game 1.”

ICE CHIPS: Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic, who opted out of the summer restart for family reasons, was named one of 31 nominees — one per team — for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, a nod to the NHLer “who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community” … Flames general manager Brad Treliving told Sportsnet 960 The Fan that AHL all-star Glenn Gawdin was left off the return-to-play roster because the 23-year-old suffered a high-ankle sprain in Phase 3.

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