Monday, January 13, 2020

Weekend rankings: The Battle of Alberta, a stunning GM firing and Lightning make their case

It was a busy weekend in the NHL, one that served up 20 games. That slate included crucial divisional showdowns like Jets/Predators and Leafs/Panthers, at least one potential Cup final preview in Penguins/Avalanche, a 50th-anniversary celebration (sort of) and the temporary return of a defunct team. There was a lot going on.

And chances are, you’re not going to remember any of it a few weeks from now. Instead, what we’ll all remember from this weekend is a stunning GM firing – we’ll get to that in a bit – and what happened between the Oilers and Flames on Saturday night.

The Battle of Alberta is back. Or at least it was, for one game.

If you somehow missed it, let’s recap. It won’t surprise you to learn that Mathew Tkachuk was in the middle of it, as he always seems to be. On this night, he locked in a big target in Zack Kassian, drilling the Oilers’ winger with three big hits. The hardest of those knocked Kassian’s helmet flying and sent him spinning to the ice.

As you might expect, Kassian didn’t appreciate the attention, and late in the second period, he decided he’d had enough.

That earned him four minutes, which was actually a pretty lenient sentence for a half-dozen haymakers. The Flames went on to score the go-ahead goal on the powerplay, and it held up as the winner.

And almost instantly, the NHL had one of those Rorschach test moments. What do you see when you watch those plays unfold?

A lot of fans, including most of the ones wearing Flames jersey, see a classic case of a physical player doing his job well enough that he suckers an opponent into a bad penalty. Tkachuk’s hits were clean, or at least close enough, and if the Oilers can’t handle that then they shouldn’t be on the ice in what’s still a contact sport. Kassian has made a career out of catching guys with their head down, but when it happens to him he has a meltdown, and costs his team a crucial game in the process. Tkachuk wins this round.

Hold on, says the other half of the room, including most of Edmonton. Tkachuk is nothing but a rat, running around throwing borderline hits and then refusing to answer the bell for it. Hockey is a rough sport, sure, but it’s also one with a code, and nobody gets unlimited free shots. If you’re going to play that way, you eventually have to back it up. If Tkachuk won’t do things the honorable way, guys like Kassian will just have to give him no choice.

The fallout came quickly, with both players dropping memorable postgame quotes on each other. Kassian called Tkachuk a “punk,” among other things, and made it clear he had no regrets. Tkachuk responded that Kassian should “stay off the tracks” if he doesn’t want to get hit, then twisted the knife: “We’ll take the power play, we’ll take the game-winner, and we’ll move on to first place.”

Call it advantage Tkachuk in the war of words. They weren’t the only ones talking after the game; it seemed like just about everyone had a take. Maybe Tkachuk was exposed as a wimp and a turtle, out there throwing dangerous hits. Maybe the problem is guys like Kassian who can dish out the contact but can’t take it. Maybe both guys were wrong. Maybe neither one was.

Maybe this is all exactly the sort of nonsense you hate seeing in a sport that was supposed to have evolved past all of this. Maybe it’s exactly the kind of old-school bad blood you miss about what the league used to be.

For what it’s worth, the Department of Player Safety called Kassian on the carpet for a hearing, while apparently giving Tkachuk’s hits a passing grade. The two players do have a history, which could come into play, as could the weak call on the ice and Kassian’s lack of remorse. That hearing will happen on Monday, so we’ll probably get a verdict later in the day.

Did we mention that the Flames won, and took over a share of first place in the division? That sort of gets lost in the shuffle, but it seems important, especially since it was only a few weeks ago that the Flames’ season seemed to be slipping away. They’ve rebounded nicely from the Bill Peters debacle, and Geoff Ward has them looking more like last year’s contender. Cam Talbot looking like vintage Mike Vernon helps too.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were scrambling to figure out when these two teams play next. The answer: soon. They’ll face each other twice in the week after the buy, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1. It’s been a while since we’ve circled our calendars for a Battle of Alberta matchup, at least for reasons other than draft lottery odds. But it’s safe to say that everyone will be watching these next two meetings. (Possibly including Kassian, who’ll miss the games if his suspension stretches to five games.)

On to this week’s rankings …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

It was another Whaler night for the Hurricanes, as they blanked the Kings for their third straight win and second straight shutout. This is always a bit of a tricky one since I know some fans love the retro feel of seeing the Whalers’ green again while others feel like it’s forced nostalgia, driven by the marketing department. Either way, it means we get to hear Brian Burke’s favorite song which is always fun.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (28-12-5, +29 true goals differential*) – They continue to roll along without Sidney Crosby, getting tough wins over the Knights, Avalanche and Coyotes. Crosby’s return had seemed imminent earlier in the week, but hit a snag when he wasn’t feeling well enough to practice on Friday. We should see him soon, but in the meantime, the Pens continue to rack up points without him.

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