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Lucic to face Oilers for the first time as a Flame as Battle of Alberta (finally) kicks off

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

EDMONTON - For months, we could feel it approaching.

The runaway trains on a collision course - the likes of which we haven't seen in some time.

The must-see-TV type.

The date - December 27, 2019 - circled in pen on the calendars of both teams, their fans, and the former players that have found new homes at either end of the QEII.

Finally, tonight, the 'Battle' reignites.

And with only one point separating these two teams, it's guaranteed to be a classic you won't want to miss.  

"We've waited almost have a season to play them," said Matthew Tkachuk, who loves to stir it up when these two archenemies meet. "Both teams are where they are in the standings, and now we've got a feel for them coming into the first game, whereas normally you're thrown right into the fire, Game 1.

"We had a little bit of a break here with the three days off, so we're all rejuvenated, we're all ready, and this is probably the biggest game of the year to this point, so we're ecstatic for it."

Beyond the fact that the Flames trail the Oilers by only a single point in the standings, making this one of the most meaningful, 'four-point' affairs these bitter foes have had in years, there is no shortage of intrigue surrounding the personalities in both locker-rooms.

Obviously, they have a history.

Milan Lucic, Tobias Rieder and Cam Talbot have all been a good fit in Calgary. Lucic, in particular, has been heating up after a tough start, and while he's pointless in his last five, had a nice run to begin the month where he scored his first three goals in red and black silks over a four-game span.

In all, he has eight points (3G, 5A) in 37 games, and has really meshed well in a bottom-six role with centre Derek Ryan, along with a rotating cast of wingers, including Dillon Dube and Johnny Gaudreau, most recently.

But his presence means more to the Flames than his production on the scoresheet.

He's a winner that has the respect of his teammates because of his experience in almost any situation - good or bad - at this level.

And that can't be measured in numbers.

"When I came here to Edmonton, signed a big contract and you come in to play with Connor McDavid and you're expected to score all these goals and all these points and be this big-time producer," Lucic said. "Then, when I came to Calgary, right off the hop, you start on the third line and play more of a bottom-six role. Big difference. There were a lot of expectations when I came here to be that winger and all that type of stuff for Connor McDavid and here in Calgary, it's providing leadership, providing strength, power, forecheck, all that type of stuff. There's a lot less emphasis on me to score in Calgary than there was in Edmonton.

"So far, I've enjoyed my role here in Calgary."

Ditto, his teammates.

"It's everything," Tkachuk said of the big man's leadership. "Every day there's something at the rink; something on the ice, something off the ice, but he's been there, he's done it, he's won a Cup.

"We all look up to him in this room. He's very well-respected and somebody that we love to have.

"He's probably the toughest guy on both teams. … He's a force. He gets up for these types of games. He's a playoff-type player and these are playoff-type games.

"We're lucky to have him."

Rieder, too, has been a good fit, and has recently added some offence to his already superb defensive game, and Talbot has given the Flames everything they could have asked for with a .913 save percentage and a 2.85 goals-against average. A little more run support when he's minding the twine would certainly help a 3-7-0 record that simply doesn't reflect how good he's been.

Overall, the Flames have to be happy.

On the other side, James Neal has had the hot hand, scoring 16 goals to sit third in team scoring. Ten of those - along with 14 of his 23 total points - have come on the powerplay. Things haven't gone nearly as well for Mike Smith, who's on a personal three-game losing streak, and is well off the pace of his partner, Mikko Koskinen, with an .893 save percentage and a 3.14 goals-against average.

It goes to show how much is on the line tonight, whether it's a crucial two points or the personal sidebars that will certainly ratchet up the emotion.

"I don't think there's been a Battle of Alberta with this much importance in the standings in late December like there is here tonight," Lucic said. "There's going to be a little extra to it and I'm excited for when the puck drops."

The Flames come out of the Christmas break on the heels of a 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Dec. 23, and have now dropped four of their last five - including a 4-3 overtime decision to the Montreal Canadiens.

However, a seven-game win streak preceding this little rough patch - in addition to a dominant, 5-1 victory over the Dallas Stars at the beginning of the week - has the Flames in the thick of it when it comes to the Western Conference playoff race.  

The Oilers, meanwhile, are reeling of late, and have been unable to string two consecutive wins together since the end of November, and are on a 3-6-1 in their last 10.

Their lackluster play on home ice has had a significant factor in that.

The Oilers won each of their first five home games, but have earned victories in only four of the 14 since, and have been given up five, six, four and five goals in a quartet of their December home losses, alone.

But they remain a threat like no other, boasting the top 1-2 scorers in the NHL in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Above all the noise that surrounds this highly anticipated matchup, that fact cannot be forgotten.

"The fact that we're playing them a lot in the second half is probably good for both sides," said interim head coach Geoff Ward. "We've got to get to an emotional level now in the second half where we're consistently putting our game on the ice. ... Right now, we're down to 42 games (left) to become a playoff team, and that process for us is going to be important

"And the emotion will help, for sure."

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