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Flames insist they’ve turned the page on playoff loss ahead of Battle of Alberta

Edmonton Oilers Calgary Flames Connor McDavid, Elias Lindholm - The Canadian Press

Most of the hockey world is salivating at this season’s first Battle of Alberta, set for Saturday night in Edmonton.

The storylines are aplenty: Edmonton and Calgary will meet for the first time since the Oilers eliminated the Flames in five games in the second round of the 2022 playoffs; Nazem Kadri gets his introduction to the most intense rivalry in the sport; and two squads with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations get an early measuring-stick game.

Then there is Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom, whose struggles against the Oilers have been well-documented. Since signing with the Flames in 2020, his 0.884 save percentage versus Edmonton is his fourth-worst of any opponent. After outduelling Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars to the tune of a 0.943 save percentage and 1.53 goals-against average, Markstrom fell apart versus Connor McDavid and company, allowing over five goals a game and stopping just 85 per cent of the shots he faced.

Markstrom said he spent part of the off-season reflecting on the early exit.

“Obviously a sour taste,” he said on Tuesday. “The Edmonton series wasn’t good…you’ve gotta forget about it and move on. It was tough the first few weeks, but then you go home to Sweden and you start hanging out with your family and friends and preparing and setting up a plan for this upcoming season. You don’t want that to happen again but it’s a long road there.”

Three days later and after an opening-night win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, where he stopped 22 of 25 shots, Calgary’s starting goalie said he’s focused on the present.

“Game two of a new season,” the 32-year-old said, of his approach to Saturday night. “They got some good players on that team and so do we. It’s going to be a fun game tomorrow. I think everybody is excited to get our first road game under our belt.”

For Edmonton, goalie Jack Campbell makes his debut in the Alberta rivalry after spending the last two-plus seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The 25-year-old McDavid anticipates an exciting tilt against the Flames whose playoff hopes he ended in overtime in Game 5.

“I expect an intense game,” said McDavid, who notched a hat trick and an assist – to reach 700 career points – after the Oilers rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-3 in their season opener Wednesday at Rogers Place.

“This building gets exciting. It’s fun to play in these games. We always seem to play them on the first Saturday of every year.”

Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft spoke about Calgary’s changes (losing Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk while adding Jonathan Huberdeau, Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar and Kevin Rooney) and how that might alter on-ice matchups. The teams split their regular season games in 2021-22, winning two each, including an entertaining 9-5 Edmonton loss on March 26. 

“We’re a different team, too,” Woodcroft said.

“We’ve added some pieces that we feel are important for our success. I think that plays itself out and I don’t think it’s static. It might start one way and then you learn and make adjustments as you go on. Obviously they had a good game yesterday, taking advantage of Colorado, who played the night before and came in late.”

Veteran Flames winger Milan Lucic spoke about the balance of not entirely forgetting the disappointment of losing in the playoffs, but turning the page mentally and emotionally.

“It’s a fine line of not letting the emotions of last year get the better of you and turning the page and moving on to a new year, new season, new rivalry, new faces in the rivalry now,” he said. “It is a Battle of Alberta game, rivalry game…both teams are expected to do well this season, so I think that just adds to the rivalry. It should make for a really good Saturday night game.”

Markstrom is expected to start, and Calgary should ice the same lineup that beat Colorado. Flames’ newcomers (Huberdeau, Kadri, Weegar and Rooney) combined for four points in that victory, including two assists by Ottawa native Weegar.

Despite Thursday’s victory over the Avalanche, his 700th as an NHL coach, Calgary’s Darryl Sutter saw plenty of room for improvement in 2022-23.

“We’ve got lots of work to do five-on-five,” he said. “It’s important to not take bad penalties and we took two or three…eventually, one costs you.”