GILBERTSON: The Battle of Alberta is back… so who is everyone picking?

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Wayne Gretzky chose the Calgary Flames.

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Until the puck falls Wednesday in this best-of-seven edition of the Battle of Alberta, that must mean early bragging rights go to the southerners.

Yes, that’s the same Wayne Gretzky who enjoyed the Edmonton Oilers’ heyday, leading that team to four Stanley Cup parades in the 1980s. When the Great One, now a studio analyst for TNT, unveiled his playoff table before the first round, he crystallized this collision between provincial foes, a long-awaited renewal of what was for some time the best rivalry in hockey.

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And then he predicted the Flames would win.

The Oilers responded on Twitter: “Ouch, Wayne. »

“I’m sure they don’t like it,” said former Edmonton resident Milan Lucic, one of five players in this series who’s worn both jerseys, choosing his words carefully. “But he’s just giving his expert opinion. »

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Jacob Markstrom also picked the Flames.

It was October 2020 as the stalwart keeper pondered his options as an unrestricted free agent.

Rumor has it Markstrom had narrowed him down to two lucrative long-term deals — either joining Connor McDavid & Co. in Edmonton or reuniting with one of his best friends, Elias Lindholm, in Calgary.

As they eagerly awaited a response from Markstrom’s camp, there was some concern around the Saddledome that their primary target was heading north.

He ultimately chose Cowtown, signing a six-year contract, and was the backbone the Flames relied on. Fresh off a Vezina Trophy nomination, he’s now focused on denying the Oilers in a different way — a victory in the first spring skirmish between these feuding clubs since 1991.

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“They didn’t show it in Sweden, so I couldn’t watch it,” Markstrom, 32, joked when asked on Tuesday about the decades-long wait for another Wild Rose Rumble in the Stanley Cup Tournament. “But I heard a lot of good things. Obviously, it’s big for the province and all that. But I think our goal is just for Game 1 to be a very important and fair game to prepare for. The noise and all the media and all that, you have to block it out and just be prepared.

For a while, it looked like Bill Daly was still picking the Oilers.

One of Daly’s duties as deputy commissioner is to pick up bingo balls in the annual NHL Draft lottery.

The Oilers were something of a dynasty, scoring the first overall pick four times over a six-year span. In 2015, Price proved to be a generational talent that changed the franchise.

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McDavid was everything they could have hoped for, and then some…and maybe even more.

He just won the Art Ross Trophy, the annual nod to the league’s top scoring dog in the race. Again.

He is part of the hat-trick of Hart Trophy finalists. Again.

He’s the best player in the world. Even the most diehard Flames fans can’t argue with that. He proved it again with a 14-point stackup against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round.

McDavid is now trying to do what Gretzky managed in three of four tries in the 80s – skate past the Flames in the playoffs. And, at the same time, he’s trying to prove Wayne wrong.

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid at practice in Edmonton on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid at practice in Edmonton on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Photo by LARRY WONG /Postmedia network

So who does everyone choose?

This is the really fun part.

As the entire province prepares for this final battle of Alberta, supporters on both sides – whether in Strathmore or Spruce Grove, Vulcan, Vegreville or the naturally divided Viking, home of the famous Sutter family – sincerely believe that their team can win.

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No, sincerely believe their team will be to win.

Whether you’re wearing red or copper, you’ve probably told your cousin, co-worker, or next-door neighbor about it. It’s not just the mayors who are betting on the outcome.

“It brings people together,” said Flames bench boss Darryl Sutter, who argued it shouldn’t be called a battle. “They could cheer on the Oilers, they could cheer on the Flames. Big deal. It is a sport. That’s what it’s about.

It should be a one-of-a-kind slobberknocker. The fun begins with Wednesday’s opener at the Saddledome (7:30 p.m. MT, Sportsnet/Sportsnet 960 The Fan).

The two teams were separated by just seven points in the Pacific Division standings, with the Calgarians claiming the top seed.

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Four regular season meetings were split into two. Like Red Deer.

The Flames don’t have a McDavid, but they had the most productive line in hockey in 2021-22 — Game 7 overtime hero Johnny Gaudreau on the left, Matthew Tkachuk on the right and Lindholm, who was drafted Tuesday for the Selke Trophy, top middle.

They have an elite goaltender in Markstrom, who posted a miniscule 1.53 goals-against average to win an epic first-round duel with Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars.

Under Sutter they engaged in a miserly style. The demanding and detail-oriented skipper won’t let them stray.

The Oilers, meanwhile, have the NHL’s biggest game-breaker in McDavid. Go ahead and ask the Kings what happens when No. 97 decides he’s not losing.

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Leon Draisaitl, even on what appears to be a swollen ankle, is equally dangerous. From the slot it rarely misses.

They have made significant defensive gains since a coaching change in mid-February, with Jay Woodcroft now at the helm.

And you think their masked man, Mike Smith, might have something to prove?

He spent two campaigns at the Saddledome before breaking through enemy lines. It’s no secret that the Oilers, when they tried to bamboozle Markstrom, were looking for an upgrade.

At 40, Smith may remember the last playoff series between arch-rivals Alberta.

It’s time for everyone to get a reminder.

So… who do you choose?

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Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

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