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'HECKUVA ATMOSPHERE'

Tonight's Battle of Alberta tilt will have plenty on the line again: 'Two teams fighting to get into the playoffs, climb higher in the standings and set themselves up the best way they can.'

by GEORGE JOHNSON @NHLFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Sifting backwards through the mists of time, Mikael Backlund tapped into his personal long-ago baptism instalment of the Battle of Alberta.

"Of course you always remember the first one. They'd lost something like 12 or 14 in a row and we'd lost I think, nine in a row,'' recalled the 11-season veteran pivot of that etched-in-memory night a decade ago.

"I remember both Gio and Iggy fought during the game.

"And of course I remember that we won, so their streak continued and ours ended.

"But it was more of a relief than anything else. We were both really, really struggling at that time.

"There's a lot more at stake now. We're both fighting for the same things. We both have high expectations.

"Things have definitely changed."

To a stage where we can plausibly dream of a resurrection of the good old/bad old glory days of the once-fabled hostilities.

Tied on 53 points, only one in arrears of current Pacific Division co-leading Vegas and Arizona, the Flames and invading Edmonton Oilers collide Saturday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

The buzz is tangible.

The Oilers are unbeaten in five (4-0-1). The Flames find themselves riding the crest of a four-game win stretch.

Edmonton, be aware, must still be smarting from a 5-1 pistol-whipping administered by Calgary in their first seasonal collision, back on Dec. 27 up north.

So, buckle up, folks.

"It is back?'' mulls Flames' assistant coach Martin Gelinas, who found himself on been on both sides of the Battle crossfire over the duration of his playing days. "Yes. Because of where we're both at in the standings. Two teams fighting to get into the playoffs, climb higher in the standings and set themselves up the best way they can.

"The game is meaningful. To both of us."

The wild-west, anything-goes days of Dead End Kid Doug Risebrough hauling ruffian Marty McSorley's jersey into the penalty box post-scrap and shredding it, cuisinart-style, with his skates (prompting Oilers coach Glen Sather in high dudgeon to demand financial restitution afterwards) may be long gone but with something tangible on the line besides the crest on the opponents' jerseys, everything is heightened and becomes far more personal.

"After being in the Bruins-Habs rivalry for so many years, this is gonna be fun,'' says Geoff Ward, the Flames interim head coach. "I think both teams are looking forward to it. But the preparation is just business as usual.

"We can't make it bigger than it is. But I think the fact the rivalry is relevant again is good.

"And it should make for a heckuva atmosphere tomorrow and a heckuva hockey game."

The key word there being 'relevant.' For so long, either one franchise or the other seemed to be thrashing just to keep its head above the water line, not aiming at the stars.

"You hear the stories,'' says Backlund. "It was huge back in the day.

"But now I think it's getting to that point again. Both teams are tough teams to beat, good teams in both the division and the conference.

"We're tied right now. Going into the (All Star) break you need all the points you can get to put yourself in a good spot to make a big push the last part of the season.

"It's going to be fun. For us, and for the fans."

Don't leave out the coaches.

"We'll see what it looks like tomorrow,'' says Gelinas. "I do know it'll be fast. Both teams have really skilled guys, checkers, tough-minded players. Back in my day, every time you played these games, they were the same.

"You knew it was going to be physical. You knew it was going to be tight. And you just expected the unexpected.

"And I think we're getting back to that same type of game now.

"Every two points is important to both teams. Every shift is important. Hopefully we'll see playoff-style hockey tomorrow.

"That same level of intensity, of having to battle through stuff, of leaving it all on the line, that people remember."

Back in the good-old/bad-old days.

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