Saturday, January 26, 2013

Oilers and Flames set to renew Battle of Alberta on Hockey Night in Canada

Hockey fans should have been treated to the first installment of the Battle of Alberta during last weekend's broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada. Unfortunately, the higher ups over at the CBC wanted a game featuring the Vancouver Canucks to be aired coast-to-coast. Leaving us with what were easily two of the dullest games on the NHL's opening night schedule, to kick-off the 2013 season on HNIC.

It may be a week late but the two Alberta rivals will take centre stage on Saturday night. The Edmonton Oilers are coming off what was a very strange but thrilling, 2-1 overtime victory over the defending Stanley Cup Champions on Thursday night. Whereas the Calgary Flames have struggled out of the gate, going 0-2-1 to start the year, but will be adding two important pieces to their lineup before hosting the Oilers.

While the match-up between the two longtime rivals has lost much of its luster over the last many years, tonight's affair has all the makings of a doozy. After watching rookie Nail Yakupov and Sam Gagner combine to bring the house down with a last second tying goal and eventual OT winner against the Los Angeles Kings, the Oilers appear to be on the verge of a breakout performance.

Watching the young Oilers, you get the sense it is just a matter of when, not if, they will fill the net on an unassuming opponent and Calgary may be ripe for the picking. After watching Ryan Nugent-Hopkins play what was easily his best game of the season against the Kings on Thursday night and the continual buzzing from both Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, do not be surprised to see the big three breakout with a huge effort against the Flames.

After going winless in his first three outings behind the bench, head coach Bob Hartley is hoping the debuts of both Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervanka will give his squad the spark they desperately need. While the season is only a week old, the Flames currently sit in a tie for last place in the Western Conference, with the Kings.

In Hudler, who was easily the club's biggest off-season acquisition, the Flames have added a player that has been dying to take on a bigger role in recent years but was never afforded the opportunity playing for the Detroit Red Wings. Despite being more of a complimentary piece during his five plus seasons in Motown, the former second round pick is coming off a career high twenty-five goal campaign in 2011-2012 and is looking to prove he is a top flight NHL player

While Hudler missed the opening week of the season due to the sudden death of his father, Cervanka has been sidelined with a blood clot issue, after being hit by a puck while playing over in Europe, during the NHL Lockout. The twenty-seven year old was considered by many to be one of the top players not playing in the National Hockey League, which led GM Jay Feaster to sign the talented Czech to a one year $3.775 contract last May.

The duo will make their debut on a line with centre Matt Stajan and have, at least temporarily, bumped highly touted prospect Sven Baertschi down to the fourth line or perhaps out of the Flames starting lineup all together.

Edmonton will look to build on their start to the season, as Devan Dubnyk will make his fourth consecutive start and rookie blueliner Justin Schultz continues to be a minute eating machine for head coach Ralph Krueger. While the young defenceman has yet to kick the Oilers power play into gear, after just three games in the NHL, Schultz is already leading the club in ice time, averaging 23:48 a night.

At first glance, one would think much of that was due to him quartbacking Edmonton's top power play unit but upon further examination, that is clearly not the case. Schultz has led all Oilers skaters in even strength ice time, in each of the last two games, and appears more than capable of playing top four, if not top pairing minutes.

After signing with Edmonton as a free agent, much was expected from the former Anaheim Ducks second rounder but no one could have guessed the kid was this far along. There is no doubt his time in the American Hockey League helped him with the transition to the pro game but he was dominant at that level, from the drop of the puck.


It looks as though Ralph Krueger has decided to make one lineup change for tonight's tilt with the Flames, sitting Teemu Hartikainen in favour of  tough guy Darcy Hodichuk. After spending the first week of the season in the pressbox, the veteran will be making his 2013 debut on the Oilers fourth line, alongside Eric Belanger and Lennart Petrell.

With Ben Eager out due to a concussion, the move is not overly surprising. Edmonton has next to no toughness upfront with Eager out of the lineup, leaving defencemen Ladislav Smid and newcomer Mark Fistric to pick up the slack...should it be warranted.

As for Hartiakainen, the rugged Finn has seen little ice time over the first three games of the season but has done next to nothing with it. Having lost his third line spot to Magnus Paajarvi for the game against LA, it was no surprise to see the youngster come out in favour of Hordichuk.

To Paajarvi's credit, the talented Swede has done a good job on Edmonton's third penalty killing unit, while adding some much needed speed to a third line that features veterans Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth.

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