The Battle of Alberta is among the NHL’s most storied rivalries, and its latest iteration has two Spokane natives square in the middle of it.
Kailer Yamamoto and Derek Ryan play together for the Edmonton Oilers, who trail the Calgary Flames 1-0 in their best-of-seven second-round playoff series, which resumes Friday in Calgary, Alberta.
Though they play in the same division and have played each other 287 times, this is the first time the two franchises have faced off in a playoff series since 1991.
The 35-year-old Ryan has seen both sides of the rivalry: He played three seasons for the Flames starting in 2018 before he signed with the Oilers heading into this season.
“I don’t think it was as much hatred or dislike that it likes to be built up to be,” Ryan said earlier this week of the feelings Flames players had toward the Oilers when he was in Calgary.
“As the season wears on, (like) the COVID season where we played each other 10 times, that just naturally and organically creates a little more dislike than normal. … But at the end of the day, I think we respect each other, and we don’t hate the guys over there. Or at least I don’t.”
This is Ryan’s third trip to the playoffs, each of the past two coming with Calgary; his two-plus seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes preceded that team’s recent run of success. Ryan has one playoff goal in 22 career playoff games. He also has three assists, including one this postseason.
But in playing fourth-line minutes, he is a reliable face-off winner – at 59.7%, he leads his team – and his minus-1 is the same as Yamamoto’s.
The 23-year-old Yamamoto, though, has been a more reliable scorer for the Oilers with five points in eight playoff games. That came after a 20-goal regular season, which marked a career best for the former first-round pick.
Asked during the first round of the playoffs – in which Edmonton eliminated the Los Angeles Kings in seven games – how his game had changed, Yamamoto said he certainly had to make adjustments just as all players do.
“(We) have to adapt to a high pace, playing against grown men,” the 5-foot-9 forward said. “I think my game’s changed a little bit, but the foundation’s still there. I’m still a tenacious player who wants the puck, wants to go to hard areas (and) plays physical.”
In a wild game Wednesday, Yamamoto scored once, a goal that at the time tied the game at 6 after the Oilers rallied from an early 5-1 deficit.
The Flames, though, scored the last three goals to win 9-6. The 15 total goals were the most scored in an NHL playoff game since 1993.
The series winner gets a spot in the conference finals, a spot the Flames haven’t been in since 2009 and the Oilers since 2006, when they lost in the Stanley Cup Finals.
If the Oilers were to get that far, it would mark the third straight season that a Spokane native played in the Stanley Cup Final after Tyler Johnson won it each of the past two years with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Johnson now plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, who did not qualify for the postseason.
Neither Yamamoto nor Ryan have been on a team that advanced any further than the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Ryan said after the Oilers advanced past the opening round and waited for the winner between the Flames and Dallas Stars, he didn’t watch that series’ Game 7. He said he figured it was out of his control, anyway, and went to bed.
But he said it is fun to be playing the Flames – and not just because of the history.
“The travel will be a lot better,” he said. “Just playing L.A. in the first round, maybe it’s just me because I’m getting older, but those long flights are hard when you’re going back and forth in a long series. It takes a toll on the body.
“We’re all just excited about this Battle of Alberta. We know what’s at stake.”
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