EDMONTON — After nearly five months without a game, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames still don’t like each other.
No doubt, the Oilers’ 4-1 victory in the exhibition game between the rivals Tuesday was a new and very different chapter to the Battle of Alberta. Playing for the first time since the NHL paused the season on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, it had to be different.
There were no fans at Rogers Place, the neutral site that will host the Western Conference Qualifiers that begin Saturday. The Flames were designated the home team in the Oilers’ arena. But Oilers captain Connor McDavid did his thing and scored two goals, and the natural animosity between the provincial rivals shone through the strangeness all the same.
“It took probably the first period to get used to it,” McDavid said. “You had two teams that don’t like each other very much. It didn’t feel too different that way, but (you) got more and more used to it as the game went on.”
A physical tone was set from the opening shift, when Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk delivered a hit on Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse in the right corner in Edmonton’s zone. Later in the first period, Oilers forward Zack Kassian knocked the helmet off Flames defenseman Erik Gustafsson with a jarring check.
By the end of the first period, there had been numerous after-the-whistle scrums and the Oilers led 2-0 on Kailer Yamamoto‘s rebound goal 1:04 into the game and McDavid’s power-play goal at 7:44.
“I thought the energy was good in this game,” Flames forward Milan Lucic said. “There was physicality, scrums. To be honest, it felt for me personally and talking to teammates after the game, it felt like a regular-season game already, and that was the first time we played in about five months.”
The lack of fan noise was evident throughout, beginning before the Canadian national anthem with a pure moment of silence for Colby Cave, the Oilers forward who died April 11 after having surgery to remove a colloid cyst that was causing pressure on his brain.
During the game, shouts from the players and coaches on the benches, instructions from the on-ice officials and chirps between opponents were audible to those sitting high above the ice in the press box. The cheers of the players after a goal or a save were the only ones.
“To be honest, it felt like the twilight zone there for a bit,” Oilers goalie Mike Smith said.
When Calgary forward Zac Rinaldo expressed his anger with Edmonton forward Josh Archibald after matching roughing minors from a second-period scrum landed them in the penalty boxes, no one had to guess what he was yelling. Kassian undoubtedly heard the urging from the Calgary bench for him to “Get in the penalty box and shut up” following his tripping minor in the third period.
“We thought we’d try to feel it out, but right away you could kind of feel the energy brewing and it wasn’t an easy game,” Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear said. “Everyone was battling hard and with the scrums, both teams hate each other and that’s as close as it gets to a playoff-type exhibition game.”
It was a spirited start to three days of exhibition games in Edmonton and at the bubble in Toronto. Each of the 24 teams in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers — 12 in the Western Conference and 12 in the Eastern Conference — has one exhibition game to shake off the rust before the postseason begins. So this was the lone tune-up for the fifth-seeded Oilers, who play the 12th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their best-of-5 series Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN), and for the eighth-seeded Flames, who play the ninth-seeded Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of their qualifier Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, CBC, SN).
“You don’t know what to expect,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said. “There’s things that you want to work on with your team, but you haven’t played in so long and you’re playing Calgary, which is obviously a rivalry. I think one of the assistant coaches said it best. He said, ‘It wasn’t an exhibition game. It wasn’t a full playoff game, but it wasn’t an exhibition game. It was somewhere in between.’
“From a coaching standpoint, I was happy for that.”
Flames coach Geoff Ward also liked it despite the final score. Calgary pulled within 2-1 on a power-play goal by Elias Lindholm at 19:56 of the second period and had Edmonton on its heels for much of the third period before late goals 33 seconds apart by Patrick Russell and McDavid sealed it for the Oilers.
“I thought there was a lot of intensity. The pace was really good. Some hitting on both sides,” Ward said. “I thought both teams played hard. It looked like a game, and the rivalry got the intensity up a little bit. Our guys don’t feel bad. We’re disappointed we didn’t get the win, obviously, and we know there are things we can take out of it, but we feel good about our game and what we were able to do after the slow start.”