Even in exhibition, Battle of Alberta stays feisty as Oilers top Flames

Connor McDavid scored two goals Tuesday to pace the Oilers to a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames in the official debut of Edmonton’s NHL post-season hub-bubble.

Kailer Yamamoto and Patrick Russell also scored for Edmonton while Elias Lindholm replied for Calgary.

It was the lone exhibition game for the two teams prior to the weekend start of the NHL’s play-in round.

It was played before thousands of empty seats at Rogers Place, which has been locked down to prevent any spread of COVID-19 as Edmonton hosts the Western Conference play-in/play-off series to finish the 2019-20 season.

The game was only a minute old when Oiler centre Leon Draisaitl chased down a dump-in to Calgary’s end to spark an attack that ended with Yamamoto firing a rebound over goalie Cam Talbot’s glove to make it 1-0.

The Oilers’ power play, the league’s best at 29.5 per cent in the regular season, made it 2-0 at the 7:44 mark. Draisaitl threaded a cross-ice pass through heavy traffic in the slot to McDavid on the doorstep who then flicked the puck over a sprawling Talbot.

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Calgary battled back in the second period, taking the game to Edmonton on the forecheck and outshooting them 16-7. Lindholm, on the power play, jumped on a loose puck at the crease and scored high on Oiler goalie Mike Smith to cut the lead to 2-1 with less than four seconds to play in the period.

The Oilers put the game away late in the third, with Russell and McDavid scoring 33 seconds apart.

Edmonton is hosting the 12 Western Conference teams as one of two NHL hub cities. Toronto is hosting the Eastern side.

The COVID clampdown made for a surreal atmosphere inside Rogers Place.

The downtown arena was closed to fans. The lower bowl stands were tarped over. Massive video screens hung down from the rafters. Calgary, dressed in red, was the designated home team, welcomed to the ice by the announcer revving up the phantom faithful with a drawn out: “Yourrrrr Calgarrrry Flaaaaames!”

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At times it sounded like a late night beer league game at the local arena, albeit at a slightly faster pace: players could be heard calling for pucks, swearing blue streaks at opponents, and sometimes derisively asking the referee what game he was watching. The slap of the sticks and the boom of the puck echoed off the plastic and mesh seats.

Media members, masked up and temperature checked, were spaced at distances high up in the rink, just below the press box.

While it was a tune-up game, there were flashes of the bad blood between these two Alberta rivals, with multiple post-whistle scrums along the glass and in the goal creases.

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In the first period, Oiler forward Zack Kassian levelled Calgary defenceman Erik Gustafsson, knocking his helmet off, while Flame forward Matthew Tkachuk pushed himself right into Mikko Koskinen’s crease, prompting the goalie to whack him with his stick.

Tkachuk, famous for his pest tactics, also delivered a hit on former Flame James Neal, leading to Neal lumberjack-whacking him on the back with his stick and drawing a penalty.

Talbot played the first half of the game for Calgary making 19 saves on 21 shots, many of the difficult variety. David Rittich came on halfway through the second.

Koskinen saved 17 of 17 between the pipes in the first half of the game for Edmonton. Smith took over the second half.

Calgary outshot Edmonton 37-30 but the dangerous chances favoured the Oilers.

The Oilers will play the 12th seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the best of five play-in series starting Saturday afternoon.

The Flames play the Winnipeg Jets.

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Read more at CBC.ca