Long time coming

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

CALGARY -- It's been a long time since the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames met with first place in the division at stake.

So long in fact that Craig MacTavish was was still playing centre for the Oilers.

Not since the 1989-90 season have the Oilers and Flames been hooked up with top spot on the line this far into the season. But whichever team starts the New Year off with a bang still has a long way to go to maintain first place.

"In today's NHL, I don't care if you're playing for first or not, you're still in the back of (your) mind thinking you've got to accumulate a bunch of points just to make sure you get in (the playoffs)," said MacTavish.

"The league is that tough and that competitive. Both teams want to bank these points to make sure we don't finish ninth."

While this particular game may not wind up having a long-term effect on the standings, MacTavish figures there's something of great value to being first, even with 42 games to go in the regular season.

MENTALLY IMPORTANT

"It's very important to our mentality as a team," said MacTavish.

"It reinforces a lot of the things that I sense the players believe now and we as coaches have tried to instill in our team. If you don't have the belief, you're never going to finish first and what's worse is you'll accept losing.

We're starting to get to that point where we believe we're the best team."

While the media is considered responsible for building up games, the significance isn't lost on the players.

"This is for first place, if you can't get up for that, you shouldn't be playing," said Flames centre Daymond Langkow.

VARYING LEVELS

Many chapters in the Battle of Alberta have passed since the last first-place conflict, with varying degrees of hostility. While there have been some dust-ups along the way, only a handful of games have been the all-out wars that were common in the heydays of the rivalry.

"They don't have the craziness with the physical altercations but both teams are excited about where they're at," said Oilers captain Jason Smith.

"Both teams are physical and play with a lot of intensity and both want to do well so it's always an aspect of the game that's a possibility."

FACEOFF DEBATE:Langkow was asked how an opposing centre should prepare to face two of the league's top faceoff men - Oilers Michael Peca and Jarret Stoll.

"I didn't cheat at all at the beginning of the year but you have to cheat a little bit to get an advantage," he said. "You have to be ready for everyone because they are mentally ready."

Langkow, who starred in the Sherwood Park minor hockey system before moving on the WHL's Tri-City Americans, isn't the only family member playing in big games this week in Calgary. His cousin, Chris, has been playing with the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers in the Mac's midget tournament.


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