Alberta's back, baby!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

CALGARY -- For far too many years now, fans, media and even players on both ends of the province, longing for a rivalry that once ranked among the most spirited and intense in all of sports, have been trying to will and coax a little life back into the Battle of Alberta.

Never mind how the enormous stakes that used to define this series plunged like the U.S. economy, making it virtually impossible to recreate that incredible 1980's passion, if we ever got half a chance to squint our eyes and pretend it was almost the same, we took it.

It was like pretending Van Halen was almost as good with Sammy Hagar. Or that Woodstock '94 compared in some ways to the original.

They weren't. And it didn't.

And all the wishful thinking in the world was never going to make the 10th place Oilers versus the seventh place Flames compare, either.

"Sometimes, the game itself has never really lived up to the billing," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish, who remembers when those orange and blue sweaters weren't vintage, but the hockey was.

There have been occasional games in the years since where fireworks broke out and a few drops of bad blood spilled onto the Rexall or Saddledome ice, and there were even occasional games late in the season that meant something. But it never lasted and it was never the same.

It won't be the same until these teams meet in the playoffs. But at least now they might actually both be good at the same time, something we haven't seen much of recently. Right now they're both after the same division title, and that's a step, at least.

"Absolutely," said Shawn Horcoff, who prefers this to the days when Edmonton's most important rivals were the teams occupying eighth and ninth place. "A lot of our success at the end of the season is going to be predicated on how we do against Calgary. You win the season series and it gives you the upper hand in trying to win the division."

Unfortunately for the Oilers, they haven't fared all that well in Calgary the last few years, going 4-11 in their last 15 here. The Flames, meanwhile, are a respectable 7-8 in Edmonton.

"It's a tough building to go into for any team, especially us," said Oilers captain Ethan Moreau. "They always seem to play well against us."

This year, on early paper, anyway, they might be capable of looking Calgary in the eye all year long.

"Hopefully we've closed the gap on them over the summer months," said MacTavish. "Normally when teams get closer it gets more competitive, and that leads to intensity and physical play. I think that'll be a big part of it Friday."

If their preseason tilt (an exhibition game with a playoff atmosphere) is any indication, and a lot of the Oilers think it is, there's going to be a very different feel to the head-to-head games this year.

"I'm sure this game is going to be very similar," said Horcoff. "Especially when it's home and home like that. Whatever happens that first night, both teams will view it as something that can help them win the next one."

They don't necessarily mean the fighting, but rather the "this is one game we can't lose because it's probably going to mean something in April" mentality.

"I don't expect a repeat of what happened (all the fights) in the preseason because both teams are going to be a lot more disciplined," said MacTavish. "There's a lot more on the line."

That's just it, the old Battle of Alberta was never just about blood. The blood came because the wins were so important, and hopefully will be again.

"It'll be fun, back-to-back games and we're both good teams," said Moreau. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're both at the top of the division. It's good for hockey, good for the province."


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