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Battle stations

He was told to expect a rock star reception from Oilers fans. But star defenceman Chris Pronger...

He was told to expect a rock star reception from Oilers fans. But star defenceman Chris Pronger looked a little surprised when he was asked to sign a fan's shoe during practice at Rexall Place yesterday. (Edmonton Sun/Perry Mah)

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

Now the skate is on the other foot.

Now the message is coming from Craig MacTavish.

And he isn't waiting for the first Edmonton-Calgary game of the regular season of the new, improved Battle of Alberta to deliver it.

It all starts with Calgary. Darryl Sutter, when he took over as coach of the Calgary Flames, told his team it all started with Edmonton. Beat Edmonton and everything would fall into place from there. Win the games against the Oilers and you'll make the playoffs. If you make the playoffs who knows what could happen.

Sutter is 7-1-1-1 career as Calgary coach against Edmonton. Last year the Flames took 10 of 12 points from the Oilers, finished five points ahead of Edmonton and, if the video goal judge had got it right in Game 6 of the final, would be defending Stanley Cup champions.

"Edmonton was Priority One. Damn right," said Sutter. "You get nine or 10 points out of Edmonton, maybe you get to the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. Obviously that's what separated the two teams in the standings."

So there was MacTavish standing between training camp sessions yesterday sounding like Sutter.

Fans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line which used to run through the middle of a bar in Red Deer, are drooling over the idea of the Battle of Alberta returning to the gory glory days. And while it's a pre-season game, MacTavish says it's "not ridiculous" to suggest it might have some meaning.

MORE GRIT, TOUGHNESS

He's not talking about winning and losing but a twist on the theme 'It's not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you played the game.' "This is a great opportunity for our young guys to show us what we're looking for. For sure we're looking for more grit and more toughness," he says of games against Calgary.

All Edmonton got last go-round was MacTavish pulling the tongue out of the mouth of Flames mascot Harvey The Hound.

"When you say toughness, some fans think you mean fighting. I'm not talking about fighting. I'm talking about hard-nosed hockey and going to the net. There's no secret to the way they play."

The first guy MacTavish pencilled into his lineup for tonight was Todd Harvey. The No. 1 reason the Oilers acquired Harvey was for the grit they didn't have against the Flames.

"That's my game. Bang some bodies. Show some grit. Have some heart," said Harvey.

"Both our teams have a way of evaluating each other down the highway. In the last season, they finished five points ahead of us. We didn't win a game in regulation time against them all year," said MacTavish. "This year we play them eight times instead of six. It's even more important than it was last year. We are in the toughest division in the NHL. Look at the stats from the last season.

"This division had more points than any other division. We play each of those teams eight times in the new NHL. That's 32 games. That's 64 points.

"Obviously there is going to be much more of a focus on division opponents. Whoever finishes with the most points in our division should finish first in the overall standings. To me it would be a shock if that doesn't happen."

And it starts with Calgary, a team MacTavish points out you can't read about in pre-season stories without reading the words Stanley Cup.

DON'T BEGRUDGE CALGARY

"Both teams have improved. I think Calgary and Edmonton are going to be really healthy for one another. We don't begrudge Calgary their success as long as it doesn't take away from our success."

Last time it was the difference between missing the playoffs and getting to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. Edmonton and the Oilers have had 16 months to fester on that. Having a mascot tongue to show for your season just doesn't do it.


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