Prior to descending into the secure zone, Edmonton Oilers winger Zack Kassian delivered a reality check to fans hoping for fisticuffs in tonight’s exhibition clash with the Calgary Flames.
Exhibition matches rarely generate much excitement in the National Hockey League. Many veteran players quietly see them as a chore to endure – hopefully without getting hurt – before advancing to games that actually count.
But the mentality is different this time for the Oilers and the Flames as the provincial rivals tangle in their one-and-only exhibition game prior to the Stanley Cup qualifiers.
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Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers open their best-of-five qualifying series Saturday afternoon against the NHL’s Chicago team. Later that evening, the puck will drop between the Flames and the Winnipeg Jets in their best-of-five.
All of the Western Conference games will take place at Edmonton’s Rogers Place.
“We have got to treat Tuesday like it’s a playoff game,” said Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk, who led the team in scoring this season with 23 goals and 61 points in 69 games.
“You look at the teams that win in the past and they’re winning going in. We have to play the same way we want to play against Winnipeg. We have to dial it in and play a good, hard physical game and take advantage of our opportunities and not give up much defensively.”
Setting feuds aside
Clearly, Kassian and Tkachuk are not in the mood to renew their on-ice feud, which is widely considered one of the nastiest in the modern-day NHL.
Tkachuk enraged Kassian – and the Oiler faithful – back on Jan. 11 with three questionable hits. He then refused Kassian’s invitation to fight, and the Edmonton forward let loose with a flurry of punches regardless.
Kassian earned a double minor for roughing and a two-game suspension. Tkachuk earned the nickname of “Turtle” in the Alberta capital for cowering under his gloves while Kassian unloaded.
The pair fought on Jan. 29 in Edmonton and parked the rivalry, for the time being.
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“Obviously, you’ve got to ride the fine line,” said Kassian, who isn’t about to ask Tkachuk to go for a socially distant coffee inside the secure zone. “The Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t a time to get redemption. It isn’t a time to take stupid penalties. It isn’t time to screw around. It’s business, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to play a good Chicago team and hopefully move on.”
‘I’m sick of losing in these first rounds’
The likely future captain of the Flames, Tkachuk says he’s tired of hearing people talk about his club as underachievers who can’t win when it counts.
The window for Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund and Sean Monahan to win in Calgary is closing. Perhaps one final opportunity is before them.
The Flames have not advanced to the second round of the playoffs since 2015.
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“I’m sick of losing in these first rounds,” said Tkachuk, clearly still bitter over Calgary’s quick exit in the 2019 playoffs when they fell in five to Colorado. “I know a lot of guys are also sick of losing, who want redemption after last year.
The mission starts tonight against Edmonton as both teams strive to build up the game speed and intensity necessary to win in the NHL post-season – and they’ll have to do it without fans in the building.
“We know what we’re here for,” Tkachuk said. “The past four months, I’ve been waiting for this moment, waiting to see what it’s going to be like.
“We’re here now and we’re here for a reason. We didn’t come here for a vacation. We came here to win. This is a really great team, a group of guys, and we all want to win together.”