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Battle of Alberta – Oct 9, 2009

Growing up in Central Alberta, we were half-way between Edmonton and Calgary during one of the biggest hockey rivalries of all time. In the mid-eighties, both teams were the elite of the league and as a young hockey fanatic, I was forced to choose my allegiance. I chose the Flames, probably as much to create the same rivalry in our house with my dad, an Oilers fan, as to side with my uncle, who had Flames season tickets. I suffered for that choice through most of my childhood as the Oilers won 5 Stanley Cups to the Flames 1.

So it seemed perfect that my first ever NHL column is about watching last night’s Battle of Alberta with my dad. Not only do we get to watch the rivalry, but we get to lob barbs at each other throughout the game.

For years, the Oilers had the upper hand in The Battle, so it still seems weird to me that the Flames are the favorites going into these games. That said, they met less than a week ago, and the Flames only won because Khabibulin mishandled the puck and gave away a free goal for the Flames win.

With the first period underway, both teams are playing it pretty close to the vest and hoping to get a break. I always enjoy this period of any game, because it happens in every sport. Both teams are trying not to make a mistake and looking for cracks to exploit in the other teams defense. Apparently the Oilers are using this period of the game to show the Flames that they have the refs in their pocket as Penner shows perfect hit-from-behind form on one of the Flames d-men.

Finally, the Flames get a power play and a chance to hopefully continue their #1 PP status in the league. They pepper shots at the net, but the Bulin Wall holds. Just as the penalty is expiring, Gilbert Brule hits Ethan Moreau with a breakaway pass after he snuck behind Regehr. Moreau put a great shot just over Kiprusoff’s right pad to make it 1-0. Edmonton has the momentum.

As a side note, I’m a firm believer in momentum. While I’m very big on teams and media using statistics to describe the success of strategies, players or teams, they can never describe the affect of momentum. There are ebbs and flows to a game that can never be described by statistics and the great players know how to both grab momentum and steal it when it’s going against them.

At this point in the game, it has essentially been a stalemate and the Flames power play looked like it might swing the game their way. To have Moreau ruin all that hard work in one quick shot, is deflating. Factor in the home crowd and you have an Oilers team full of confidence and a Flames team struggling to shrug it off. From this point on, the Oilers have the upper hand unless Calgary can come up with a big play.

As if to prove my point, the Oilers are swarming the offensive zone right now and the only thing keeping Calgary in the game is Kipper standing on his head. On the power play, Lubomir Visnovsky makes a beautiful play by faking the pass down the boards and causing Craig Conroy to completely overplay that pass. Visnovsky stepped around Conroy and unleashed a bullet shot to the low right side of the net. 2-0 Oilers.

Going into the first intermission, the Oilers have everything going for them and one more goal could put this game away.

In the first minute of the 2nd period, Sheldon Souray and Jerome Iginla went crashing into the boards while racing for the puck. Souray suffered a mild concussion and Iginla got called for tripping, despite smashing his own head into the boards. I watched the replay four times, and there’s no way it was intentional, despite my dad making comments about how dirty it was, just to get me fired up.

Later in the period, Iggy made the mistake he always does in heated games, he got goaded into a fight. Moreau, upset with Souray’s injury, picked a fight with him and Iggy obliged. Part of the reason Jerome is one of my 2 favorite players of all time (the other is Cam Neely) is because he’s equally capable of scoring and imposing himself physically. That said, he’s got to pick his spots. The last thing the Flames needed was to lose their best offensive player when down 2-0, especially when the Oilers only lost Moreau.

The Flames manage to get a 5-on-3 power play, on a sketchy penalty call. If the defender can’t try to lift the stick, I think we’re getting away from physical play too much.

Someone needs to explain to me how you can run a proper 5-on-3 PP with 5 left-handed players. I understand that Iggy was in the box, but there are other right-handers on the roster. By using all left-handed players, the key benefit of the 2 man advantage is lost. The Oilers recognized this and forced the Flames to move the puck away from the side where they could one-time the shot. As a result, they had time to rotate over and close the shooting lanes.

Near the end of the period, the Flames caught a break as Langkow’s shot hit a defender and bounced past Khabibulin. 2-1 at the end of the 2nd and the Flames have found some life.

At the beginning of the 3rd, Jacques is trying to pick a fight with Iggy, but he’s apparently learned his lesson. I like this guy Jacques. He’s been solid on the top line and realizes that his job is to impose a physical presence and grind in the corners. He’s a good fit for Edmonton.

The line with Rene Bourque and Nigel Dawes is putting great pressure on the Oilers with Pardy and Kronwall pinching at just the right times. After pinning the Oilers in their zone for ~45 seconds, Kronwall puts a shot on net that Dawes deflects into the net. 2-2.

With the Flames back in the game, the Rexall crowd seems nervous. No fan wants to see their team give up a two goal lead, especially my dad. I’m enjoying this.

9 minutes later, Ales Hemsky displays a goal-scorer’s patience as he out-waits Kiprusoff while moving to his right and puts the puck past him. 3-2 Oilers and Rexall Place is going nuts. My dad is gloating and I don’t feel so good.

The Flames pulled their goalie and are doing their best to put some shots on net while hoping for a lucky bounce. With only a few seconds left, I’m mentally trying to will Phaneuf to “shoot the damn puck” as he slides it across to Bouwmeester. Big Jay puts one on net that Bourque tips down past Khabibulin’s feet and into the net. 3-3 and absolute silence at Rexall Place. I love it. My dad wants a replay and the refs apparently heard him. To be honest, you can’t tell from these replays if the stick is over the crossbar. No matter which way the ref called it, that’s the way it will stay.

In OT, the Oilers absolutely dominated the Flames with 7 shots to 0. The only reason the Flames survived was that Kipper put on a goaltending clinic.

Shoot-out time. I didn’t like Gagner’s attempt to go five-hole on Kipper because he didn’t make him move. It’s easier to go 5-hole if the goalie is moving across the crease. Both Dawes and O’Sullivan make beautiful shots for goals that were almost identical. I think the cross-body, top corner shot is one of the hardest in hockey, but also one of the most unstoppable. Neither goalie had a hope. Somehow Olli Jokinen manages to squeeze a puck between the post and Khabi’s pad for a 2-1 edge. With all the pressure on Hemsky, he pulls Kipper just slightly off the post and goes top corner, only to have it hit the post. Game over and another Flames win.

Calgary holds a 2-0 edge in the Battle of Alberta so far this year, but it looks like they’ll be close games. Sorry Dad.

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