Mike Smith is a wildcard. That defines both the former Calgary Flames goaltender’s personality and his importance in the Battle of Alberta about to unfold.
As the last line of defence for his Edmonton Oilers, Smith will be a massive factor in the ultimate outcome of the second-round NHL playoff series. The first of its kind in more than 30 years in the province.
Despite the decades without a post-season meeting between these two teams that exist just 300 kilometres of highway between them, the heated rivalry has festered on and off the ice.
It’s been nurtured by the hatred the fan bases share for each other, and the attention that comes every single time these two teams battle.
The on-ice antics support the fact that it’s no ordinary series. This isn’t your typical Round Two of the NHL playoffs. It’s a feud come to hockey’s forefront.
Smith knows this to be true. He’s been a major contributor to the antics. A goalie fight with Cam Talbot. Harsh words and behind-the-net blocker drops on Matthew Tkachuk.
The hockey world is anticipating this series like no other.
So, of course Smith downplayed it ahead of puck drop.
“Honestly, I think you guys hype it up more than the players do,” Smith said this week. “To us, we’re not getting caught up in the hype. Just another series for us.”
Not just another series. Yes, the players need to find a way to approach it that way. Emotion is important, but too much of it leads to penalties, potential suspensions and a lack of focus that can lead to losses.
“You want to stay disciplined and not be in the box all series. It’s about staying composed and staying in the moment and not letting the emotions of all the hype get in the way of playing how we’re capable of playing and how we want to play to be the most successful,” said Smith. “The extracurriculars, we’re not really – hopefully – going to get caught up in it too much.
“It’s an emotional game and stuff happens. We want to stick together as a group. But that’s not at the forefront of our minds.”
Flames players embrace the hype
The Flames seem to be embracing the hype a little differently. Milan Lucic, who also has played for both the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, is enjoying the atmosphere already.
“The history, the rivalry, all that type of stuff. Feels like everything is more magnified,” Lucic said this week. “The fans are more into it, the emotions are more into it, the media and storylines are that much more into it.
“As an as athlete, it’s something to look forward to and something to have fun with.”
Tkachuk is a good bet to take another featured role in the rivalry. His first experience was a bit overwhelming, playing his first NHL regular-season game at the new rink in Edmonton in 2016. There were Oilers legends on the ice for warmup, and the arena was already packed.
“As I’m skating out onto the ice, I don’t remember it perfectly, but it (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mark) Messier were out there doing a few laps,” Tkachuk recalled on Wednesday. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m 18 years old. I don’t know if I’m ready for this.’ ”
The rivalry has grown since his rookie season, and Tkachuk is a big part of that. His exchanges with Smith and Zack Kassian will get extra views on YouTube over the next couple of weeks.
Who knows what new clips will be created.
“He’s a guy you want on your team every day. Pisses other teams off,” Calgary Flames Game 7 hero Johnny Gaudreau said on Wednesday. “That’s a guy you want on your team. Every game he shows up, he’s excited, he’s ready to go. Just a great teammate for our team and he’s done such a good job this year.”
Tkachuk says the rivalry has ramped up since his debut.
“It’s gotten bigger the last few years with both teams playing a lot better and maybe meeting in the playoffs,” he said.
“We’ll see what happens out there. But it should be good hockey.”