blog

Former Flames Tkachuk, Bennett rekindle Oilers rivalry

Sunrise, Florida – Corey Perry smiles and laughs when you ask the question. Does Perry see a little bit of himself in Matthew Tkachuk? “Probably, yes,” Perry replies, who knows what you’re talking about. “He’s definitely been doing it for a while. It’s an art, right? It’s fun to watch. “We’ve had some good battles against each other.

What you’re going to get is a dangerous playmaker who thrives in the mud and shines in the spotlight. A guy who never shies away from the big moments — like, say, the Stanley Cup Finals — but enjoys all the small, dirty moments along the way.

A player who understands what a rivalry means and knows how to get under an opponent’s skin, to the point where you want to pull the mouthguard out of his mouth and throw it into the stands. Yes, with Tkachuk and the differently evil Sam Bennett, stars of the Florida Panthers, the Edmonton Oilers are about to meet some old foes again. Some old flames are sure to rekindle a spark. Darnell Nurse remembers Tkachuk’s Calgary days, when he “laid some hits that ignited some scraps” and regularly raised the temperature of the game as soon as he stepped on the ice.
“Possibly the funniest fight of his era,” Nurse says of Alberta. “The animosity and the heat that was in that series — he brought a lot of that into his style of play,” he says. That series, Edmonton’s wild second-round win over the Flames in 2022, marked Tkachuk’s final days in Alberta. Tkachuk showcased his talents in South Florida in a summer blockbuster directed by Bill Zito that reunited him with Bennett and changed the trajectory of two franchises. The Panthers haven’t lost a single playoff round since; the Flames haven’t been back to the dance. “I remember telling a friend of mine: ‘We may lose more regular season games, but we’ll win more playoff games.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” Lomberg says. “Billy called him a unicorn when he first bought him… I think he said it right.” Panthers veteran Kyle Okposo speaks of Tkachuk the same way teammates speak of Perry. “He’ll do anything to win, so he’s a player you always want on your team,” Okposo says. “He just has that fun, old-fashioned mentality that you don’t get to see anymore. When I first came into the league, everybody was like that. So, it reminds me of Brendan Witt, Bill Guerin, Dougie Weight, those types of guys to me. He reminds me of them more than the new generation.” If Tkachuk — a defensively responsible 100-point superstar who excites and provokes like a role player — is a unicorn, Bennett is a bull. The Flames’ fourth-overall pick in 2014 is just as likely to score a clutch goal as he is to deliver an injury-inducing hit. Ask Brad Marchand. Or Matthew Neese.

Bennett struggled with role and consistency in Calgary before moving south, but like many others, he found an ideal spot with the Cats, emerging as a 20-goal, top-six forward and a threat on the boards.

His early NHL years facing Edmonton regularly are sure to trigger some deja vu in the coming weeks.

“The Battle of Alberta was always intense. “It’s a great rivalry. Anytime you play against Edmonton, it’s an intense battle, every game is hard fought. So of course, I still remember those tough games — and I’m sure they’re going to be quite intense again.”

An American who spent six years in Alberta, Tkachuk recognized the passion and hype surrounding the series north of the 49ers. “Not just Edmonton, but everybody in Canada is going to be watching glued to their TVs.  “Last year I got booed every time I touched the puck, but this year it’s been nothing like that. I have no idea.”

On Friday, Tkachuk was excited by the anticipation of the unknown, of what a new battle against a familiar foe on Saturday might bring.

“It feels like Christmas Eve right now,” he said with a smile. Where Calgary let Bennett go, Tkachuk’s farewell was organized by the player himself. He “saw something special” in Florida, a chance to win, to lead, to move forward.
“Fortunately, when he was in Calgary, he was in a different conference, and we didn’t get to see him as often. But he’s a gamer. I think he’s more into it than what he brings on the ice. From day one two years ago, we saw that — his presence in the room, what kind of leader he is, what kind of personality he has. I think everybody has seen the way we’ve grown over the last two years, the selflessness he’s shown. He’s a team-first guy, and that’s what you want from your leaders and your top offensive guys.”

That Tkachuk and Bennett and the Oilers are all competing for the Stanley Cup has to be a nightmare for Calgary fans, who would rather see either their archrival or some good Ones That Got Away touch down at the top of the mountain.

“They were the Flames for a short time,” Lomberg says. “They’re the Florida Panthers now. I think that’s what Chucky said in his first press conference: He hates Tampa Bay more than he hates Edmonton. Those are the guys that play like that. “They’re the South Florida guys now, and they play with the Cats.”