The Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames exist in the vast middle of the NHL, along with the many teams who are not great and who are not awful.
Place the long-time and renewed rivals in front of each other and both are a little more ornery, because so little truly separates them. Even the usually pacifist Daniel Sedin gets himself in tangles, and scrums of punches thrown.
Later in the second period on Saturday night, with Vancouver playing host to Calgary, Sedin half-tripped Brandon Bollig in a neutral-zone faceoff. Moments later, Sedin thrusted Deryk Engelland into the boards on the other side of the rink, with Bollig closely trailing. All three engaged in a mini-melee before they were all sent off for roughing minors.
"He starts pushing, and I don't know, it happens," Sedin said afterward of the faceoff. Of his unusually physical play, he acted as though it was exactly his game throughout his NHL career as he begins his 15th season in Vancouver: "Things happen. Nothing out of the ordinary."
The reborn rivalry between Vancouver and Calgary – fought just as hard in various eras of the past – is the modern NHL, macro and micro. The league is filled with teams such as these two, teams with some notable talent but teams that are not fully stacked with talent.
And for Vancouver and Calgary, in the difficult Western Conference and tight Pacific Division, the long 82-game regular season could likely be decided on a few bounces, a couple of games. Last year, both made the playoffs and faced each other. But this season their rivalry could well determine which of the two teams makes the postseason.
The Canucks-Flames first-round playoff, last April, was heading to a seventh game until Vancouver choked, blowing a three-goal lead to hand victory to Calgary in six games. Five and a half months later, it remains as close between the two teams.
The NHL schedule makers repeated the Flames-Canucks matchups at the start of this season with a home-and-home series.
The Canucks sought some redemption.
Last Wednesday in Calgary, the Flames likely were embarrassed when the Canucks rolled to a 5-1 win. On Saturday night in Vancouver, it was more tightly fought, more indicative of the teams' true ability – but this time it was Vancouver who felt embarrassed, giving up a lead in the third period before losing 3-2 in the arcade-style version of hockey in overtime, three-on-three.
Calgary's Cardiac Kids, last year's third-period heroes, are back in business.
After the game, Flames captain Mark Giordano called it "our brand of hockey."
"That was our DNA there, never giving up," he said, his face soaked in sweat after the rodeo of three-on-three OT.
But beyond the comeback victory, it isn't easy to declare one team better than the other, even if odds makers and prognosticators mostly have picked the Flames for the postseason and the Canucks to miss.
"Tonight, you saw two pretty evenly matched teams," Giordano said. "They come hard on the fore-check. It's hard to make plays when they're coming and we did a little of the same to them in the third and create some chances."
Both teams have good goaltending and young offensive threats. Both teams have stalwart, top-tier veterans, in both cases the captains, Giordano in Calgary and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver.
All of it was on display in Vancouver on Saturday. Flames goaltender Jonas Hiller and Vancouver's Ryan Miller were two of the best on the ice, start to finish.
The goals scored are beauties and all came from the rising stars: Calgary's new defenceman Dougie Hamilton had space and time on the power play to rifle home the opening goal; Vancouver's Bo Horvat responded on the power play with a great top-shelf marker from in close, after eluding Giordano and snatching his own rebound; then Vancouver took the lead as 19-year-old Jared McCann, in his second NHL game, scored a wicked goal from the slot; and it was Sean Monahan, the veteran of the youth brigade at 20, who tied it for Calgary in the third.
In overtime, the wily Johnny Gaudreau notched the win for Calgary.
"For the most part," Daniel Sedin said, "we had two good games. The third period tonight wasn't good enough and that's disappointing."
The rivals won't see each other again until February. Apart, they face immediate tests. The Flames play host to Stanley Cup contender St. Louis Blues on Tuesday and Vancouver faces the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings on the road, Monday and Tuesday, respectively.
Two games in, Vancouver is third in the Pacific Division. Calgary is fourth, one point back. It looked like this for a lot of the latter stretch of last season and will likely look much like this for all of this one, right through early spring.