CALGARY, AB - The stage is set and the stakes have never been higher.
Provincial bragging rights aren't the only thing on the line in Saturday's Battle of Alberta - the second BoA of the 2019-20 campaign - as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers vie for improved Pacific Division placing while simultaneously looking to keep their respective winning streaks intact.
The Oilers are rolling right along in the year 2020 on a three-game success streak, jumping into Saturday's action with points in five of their last six.
The Flames, meanwhile, have connected four consecutive victories of their own.
Both sides enter with identical 24-17-5 records and a 53-point pace, and should the Vegas Golden Knights lose to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, the first-place team in the Pacific will hail from Alberta.
So, let the game begin.
"They're all big games," Oilers Head Coach Dave Tippett said Saturday morning.
"It doesn't matter if you're playing the team you're tied with, the team you're ahead of or the team behind. Every point is valuable right now. The emotion of games is going to reflect that."
There never is a shortage of storylines in the Battle of Alberta and the players are well-aware of that. But no skater articulated Saturday's setting better than former Oiler Milan Lucic.
"A big rivalry game like this with a chance to move to first in the division," Lucic said. "They've won four of their last five, we've won four in a row. Two teams that are rolling, two teams looking to move up the standings.
"The fans are excited; the players are all excited. It should make for a great matchup here tonight."
In their first meeting back on Dec. 27, it was Lucic, Tobias Rieder and Cam Talbot returning to their old stomping grounds in Edmonton.
Lucic and Rieder were scoreless and Talbot didn't man the twine but the three former Oilers exited Oil Country with a 5-1 win and two points in the bag.
Now, it's James Neal and Mike Smith's turn to come back to the city and arena they used to lace up in.
"Sometimes you come back and you're dreading those games and just want them to be over with," Neal, describing what it's like for a player to compete against their former squad, said.
"I was only here a year. I felt pretty comfortable out there on the ice (Saturday morning) and have played lots in this building on the visiting team. It wasn't too different or too weird for me."
Smith, who started each of the last four Oilers games, will not guard the pipes for the Orange & Blue.
Former Edmonton protector Talbot, who will begin his third-straight contest, used to face pucks from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in practice when the netminder donned the oil drop.
Tonight, he'll safeguard against the National Hockey League's first- and second-highest scorers.
"What makes them so great is they never do the same thing twice," Talbot said of No. 97 and 29.
"It's just going to be a game of patience on my part. Try to make them make the first move and be as patient as possible."
Zack Kassian got well-acquainted with Talbot during his tenure with the Oilers but the winger denied any shooter's advantage that may present.
"It's like any goalie, you have to get traffic (in front)," Kassian, who has 13 goals and 28 points this season, said.
"There are no easy goalies in this League."
Koskinen will get in the blue paint for the first time since Edmonton's 7-5 win over the New York Rangers on New Year's Eve. The goalie is 14-8-2 with a 2.85 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
"He'll be fresh and ready to play," Tippett said.
Upfront, Sam Gagner will replace Jujhar Khaira. Gagner skated alongside Gaëtan Haas and Alex Chiasson.
"We're just looking for a little more playmaking ability on that line than we had the other night," Tippett added.
As for Khaira's penalty-killing services, Tippett mentioned Kailer Yamamoto, Haas or Draisaitl could offer shorthanded help.
And despite only playing 7:46 against the Habs, Caleb Jones was back on the right side of Kris Russell at the morning skate.
Tonight's game is the second of five Battle of Albertas of the '19-20 season.
In their first clash, Calgary handed Edmonton a 5-1 loss at Rogers Place. Connor McDavid struck a solo for the Oilers while Andrew Mangiapane collected a goal and two assists for the Flames.
McDavid has 12 goals and 18 points in 17 career games against CGY.
Oilers team scope:
The Orange & Blue enter C of Red territory on a three-game winning streak and having collected points in five of their last six, beginning 2020 with a 3-0-1 record.
Edmonton's experienced an influx of confidence over their five-game getaway, downing elite competition such as the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and coming from behind for a W over Montreal.
Edmonton is 5-4-1 in their last 10 games and involved in the tight Pacific Division race, which finds the Oilers third in the Division with 53 points.
Flames team scope:
The Flames are taking four straight victories of their own into Saturday's Battle of Alberta and share the same 24-17-5 record and 53 point total as their provincial rivals.
Calgary is coming off consecutive 2-1 winning outcomes, first against the Chicago Blackhawks and then vs. the Minnesota Wild.
Lindholm leads the Flames in goals with 18, Johnny Gaudreau tops the assist list with 24 and Matthew Tkachuk is the team's scoring leader with 38 points.
By the Numbers:
McDavid picked up his 70th point of the season vs. MTL with an assist, marking the fourth straight season he's achieved 70 or more points. ... The Oilers Captain has six points (2G, 4A) in his last three contests. ... Leon Draisaitl is on a five-game point streak (3G, 5A) and registered two or more points in each of his last three games. ... The Oilers are 18-4-2 when scoring first while the Flames are 12-3-3. ... Calgary is 12-14-2 when their opponent scores first and Edmonton is 6-13-3. ... EDM is 8-5-1 vs. the Pacific Division this season and CGY is 6-6-1.