CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — Brett Kulak has a confession to make. While the veteran NHL defenseman might have grown up less than 200 miles away from Calgary, he never paid much attention to the Flames until they selected him in the 2012 draft.
No offense or anything. It’s just that Kulak grew up in Edmonton. And when you’re a hockey kid growing up in Edmonton, Calgary might as well be on the moon.
“It’s not like I hated them,” Kulak said. “But I never even listened or saw or knew much about them. I didn’t pay attention to them.”
Perhaps because there wasn’t much to say. The Flames have been adrift for the better part of three decades. The Oilers too for that matter.
The “Battle of Alberta” that defined one of the NHL’s fiercest rivalries in the 1980s and early 1990s — when the Oilers and Flames met five times in the postseason, with the victor typically reaching the Stanley Cup Final — has been relegated to backburner status outside the province for years.
Until now. The long-simmering feud that once led the old Crown and Anchor Bar in Red Deer, about halfway between Edmonton and Calgary to paint a line down the middle to separate the fans is ready to return to a full boil when the Oilers and Flames meet in the Western Conference semifinals starting on Wednesday night in Calgary.
Connor McDavid vs. Johnny Gaudreau. Family vs. family. Town vs. town.
“To have that rivalry exist in the playoffs is something special,” Edmonton forward Derek Ryan said. “We’re going to try and take it in and try our best and live in the moment.”
A moment that offers more than just official bragging rights but actual stakes. The Flames haven’t reached the conference finals since losing the 2004 Stanley Cup Final to Tampa Bay. The Oilers haven’t reached the conference finals since losing to Carolina in the Cup final two years later.
One team’s long wait will be over after each advanced by pulling out thrilling Game 7 victories in the opening round, with their stars stepping into the spotlight.
McDavid basically willed the Oilers past the Kings with a goal and an assist in Game 7. Gaudreau’s overtime winnerin Game 7 against Dallas provided the exclamation point — so far — on a career year.
Now they’ll take center stage in a matchup that has provided the kind of jolt not seen since star-crossed rosters on both sides clashed regularly nearly 40 years ago.
“I mean, I’ve been here for nine years and never even had a sniff of a chance to play them in the playoffs,” Gaudreau said. “It’s pretty special. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be good for the province. Going to be a lot of fun for them, for us. It’s going to be a pretty cool series.”
After a 31-year hiatus, another potentially epic chapter in the Battle of Alberta awaits.
McDavid’s play has been sublime nearly from the moment he arrived in the NHL as the league’s next great star in 2016. While he’s a finalist to claim his third Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player, he’s still waiting for that postseason breakthrough.
His highlight-reel goal against the Kings gave the Oilers just their second playoff series win on his watch. Consider it evidence of McDavid not just walking the walk but in some ways, talking the talk for the first time in his career.
“He’s somebody who is not afraid to speak up and let his teammates know what he expects,” Woodcroft said, later adding “he’s inspiring his teammates. He’s someone who is driving us forward.”
JOHNNY B GOOD
Gaudreau’s electric game-winner against the Stars set off a raucous celebration. The fact he did it with an “A” on his jersey as an alternate captain could also be seen as a sign of growth.
Flames coach Darryl Sutter said he gave it to Gaudreau as a matter of course following an injury to defenseman Chris Tanev.
“The Cs and the As are just decorations right?” Sutter asked. “It’s what you do actually do in the room and on the ice that’s important.”
And what Gaudreau did is help the Flames escape the first round for the first time since 2015.
HEALTHY … ISH?
Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all expected to play. Draisaitl appeared to injure his leg early in Game 6 but gutted his way through the rest of the series with Los Angeles, including skating 23 minutes in Game 7.
Draisaitl, the only player in the league this season to score at least 50 goals (55) and collect 50 assists (also 55) did not skate on Tuesday but coach Jay Woodcroft said Draisaitl, Kane and Nugent-Hopkins should be good to go.
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