The Battle of Alberta rolled into Edmonton on Sunday and brought with it the clamour of a playoff series unheard and unseen here in decades. The air was heavy with a mixture of excitement and tension. The Oilers and Flames have not faced off in the postseason in 31 years, and their loyalists are loving every high stick, jab and poke of this.
Every seat in Rogers Place was filled and hundreds of fans unable to land one forked over $100 to simply walk around the concourses, watch the game on TVs and soak in the nervous energy. Thousands more jammed into a plaza for an outdoor tailgate party across the street.
It was not long before delirium reigned. Evander Kane scored three of Edmonton’s four goals in the second period in a 4-1 victory that gave the Oilers a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven second-round series.
Every sort of chapeau fluttered down onto the ice after Kane’s natural hat trick – that is three successive goals. The high-risk pickup has scored nine times now in 10 postseason games. The former Maple Leaf Zach Hyman broke a 0-0 tie early in the second period – he has six goals in the playoffs – and the outcome was decided.
It was a huge night not only for Kane but the Oilers’ top guns, too.
Leon Draisaitl had assists on all four goals and Connor McDavid had three. McDavid now has 23 points in 10 playoff games and Draisaitl has 19. The four assists in one period was an NHL record for a playoff game.
Mike Smith, Edmonton’s 40-year-old goalie, made 29 saves. He left midway through the third period after being slammed behind the net by Calgary’s Milan Lucic.
After undergoing concussion tests, Smith returned to the ice to roars and Miko Koskinen went back to the bench.
“I think he deserved the opportunity to back in,” Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft said.
Oliver Kylington ruined Smith’s shutout with about five minutes remaining.
The Oilers had got off to poor starts in games one and two and wanted better this time.
“With the atmosphere and the crowd buzzing, I think there is no excuse why we wouldn’t come out flying tonight,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Edmonton forward, said earlier in the day.
Fly they did.
Hyman put Edmonton ahead 52 seconds into the second period and then Kane then scored three times in a little more than seven minutes. After his second goal, Calgary troublemaker Matthew Tkachuk was jawing at anybody and everybody, including the refs.
Before the second period was over, fans were taunting him and goalie Jacob Markstrom. As the hats were cleaned up, they joined in a singalong to Sweet Caroline.
At Rogers Place, good times never have seemed so good.
Markstrom had his head on a swivel throughout. He was bombarded with 20 shots in the first period and held tight. After that, he and the Flames were overwhelmed. He was relieved by Dan Vladar after allowing four goals on 30 shots.
These combatants are irritable at the sight of one another in relatively meaningless games in the regular season, but the Stanley Cup brings out a whole extra level of ugliness. In the first two games, they combined for a near-record 23 goals and 36 penalties; in this one, they were called for 16 more infractions.
Lucic was given a 10-minute game infraction after he took a run at Smith behind the Oilers’ net.
“I don’t even know what happened,” Smith said. “I went to get the puck and then got buried on the boards.”
Smith’s helmet flew off although he was never struck on the head. He was taken to the dressing room for tests as a precaution.
“It was definitely playoff frustration on their part,” Kane said. “I think the refs made the right call.”
Kane’s frequent problems off the ice led to him being waived by the San Jose Sharks. Edmonton took a gamble on him and he has been a revelation. He had 22 goals in 43 games during the regular season and has ticked it up a few notches since then.
“I didn’t know anything about him at all,” Woodcroft, who took over when Dave Tippett was fired in midseason, said. “What I have learned is that he is a player with really good work habits. There is a reason he finds success on the ice.”
The series began in Calgary and then proceeded 300 kilometres north on the May-long weekend with each club having achieved one victory. I’m sorry Montreal and Toronto; it doesn’t get any better than this.
The home crowd roared with every jarring hit. The biggest ovations were reserved for Canadian soccer star Alphonso Davies – he is an Oilers fan – and Ben Stelter, a five-year-old cancer patient the team has adopted in the midst of a very difficult fight.
“It was an electric atmosphere,” Woodcroft said. “That building was quite loud. I know our players were buoyed by all the excitement.”
What looked like an obvious edge heading into the series was Calgary’s goaltending. Markstrom went 37-15 with a .922 save percentage during the regular season. Smith missed nearly two-thirds of the games because of injuries and ended up 16-9-2 with a .915 save percentage.
The latter got chased after allowing three fast goals in Game 1, but turned in a 37-save performance in Edmonton’s victory in Game 2. He entered the night 5-3 with a .929 save percentage in the playoffs. Markstrom came in 5-4 and .915 – there might not be as much an advantage after all.
“He played 28 regular-season games and 10 in the playoffs,” Woodcroft said of his goaltender. “He is in midseason form right now.”
Game 4 in the series is Tuesday night again at Rogers Place. Calgary, which finished ahead of the Oilers in the standings, is in danger of falling into a 3-1 hole before it returns to Calgary for Game 5 on Thursday.
An hour after Sunday’s game had ended, the streets outside the arena were jammed. Cars passed by slowly with Oilers flags aloft. One had a replica of the Stanley Cup on its roof.
Fans stood outside chanting.
“We want the Cup,” they said.