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NHL betting: Flames are substantial favorites against Oilers in Battle of Alberta

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It has been 31 years since Esa Tikkanen scored in overtime of Game 7 to give the Edmonton Oilers a series win over the Calgary Flames. We have waited that long for a "Battle of Alberta" in the NHL playoffs, but the wait is finally over.

When the playoff bracket was set, it looked inevitable that we'd get this matchup in the second round as both Edmonton and Calgary entered their first-round series as substantial favorites. However, both teams were pushed to Game 7 before eventually surviving and setting up a matchup hockey fans have been waiting over three decades for.

These teams dislike each other and their fanbases have no love for each other as well. However, on the ice, it's a fascinating series between two good teams. The Oilers are known for their talent and game-breaking ability, while the Flames are considered one of the most complete and structured teams in hockey. Calgary enters the series as a -200 favorite to win and advance to the Western Conference final.

How these teams got here

After missing the playoffs in 2021, the Calgary Flames entered this past regular season hoping to return to the playoffs in their first full season of Darryl Sutter's second stint as Flames head coach. However, they ended up accomplishing much more than that. The Flames finished with 111 points, winning them their division and finishing with the sixth-best record in the sport. The Flames were dominant during the regular season, finishing as the fifth-best team in the league in generating offense and third-best team in the league in limiting expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Entering the first round, many expected the Flames to have their way with the Dallas Stars, and they kind of did. Calgary had over 59% of the expected goals in the series at 5-on-5, but they ran into an all-time great goaltending performance from Dallas' Jake Oettinger. In Game 7, the Flames had 134 shot attempts and 67 shots on goal, compared to 59 and 28 for Dallas. However, the Flames needed overtime to pull out the win on home ice. While Calgary being pushed to overtime of Game 7 isn't something many expected, sometimes the other goalie gets hot and there's almost nothing you can do. Thankfully for the Flames, they survived and advanced.

On the other side, the Edmonton Oilers looked to be in turmoil before a midseason coaching change helped to right the ship. Jay Woodcroft took over the bench on February 10, and the Oilers finished the season with a 26-9-3 record under their new coach. Woodcroft has received a lot of credit from the likes of Connor McDavid and Mike Smith for implementing new systems that made the Oilers harder to play against and help cut down on goals against.

In the first round, the Oilers came back from down 3-2 in the series to eliminate the Los Angeles Kings. Edmonton played to a 56% expected goal rate at 5-on-5 in the series and scored on nearly 37% of their power-play opportunities. Connor McDavid leads the league in playoff points with 14 and Mike Smith posted a .938 save percentage and +8.2 goals saved above expectation in the first round. McDavid's goal and assist along with Smith's shutout powered Edmonton to a 2-0 win in Game 7 over Los Angeles to help make this series happen.

CALGARY, AB - MARCH 7: Andrew Mangiapane #88 of the Calgary Flames battles after the whistle against Markus Niemelainen #80 of the Edmonton Oilers at Scotiabank Saddledome on March 7, 2022 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Calgary Flames are favorites over the Edmonton Oilers in Round 2 of the NHL playoffs. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

What to watch for

One of the big turning points in the Oilers' first-round series victory over the Kings was when Woodcroft began to experiment with loading up his top line. For most of the season, the Oilers have preferred to keep McDavid and Leon Draisaitl separated. That gives them two top-five players in the league spread out on two different lines, which is obviously a nightmare for other coaches and teams to deal with.

However, when the Oilers needs a big shift or a goal, they often play the two superstars together in an attempt to overpower the opposition. Facing elimination and a deficit in their last series, the Oilers made the move and it paid off as they won two straight games with McDavid and Draisaitl combining for seven points.

Will the Oilers attempt to load up against the Flames? Calgary is a much different team than Los Angeles: They have more elite skill, they are deeper and they have a much better defensive core. Is Edmonton's best strategy to spread out their elite talent, or is their best strategy to attempt to overpower Calgary?

The top-end talent in this series favors the Oilers. They have two of the best players in the league. While Calgary's top-line featuring Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk is one of the league's best, there's probably no team in the league that can match the talent level of McDavid, Draisaitl and Evander Kane.

Elite talent can break a game, so that's certainly a plus for the Oilers. Unfortunately for them, Calgary matches up better almost everywhere else on the ice. The Flames have three solid lines behind their top-line that can play any number of ways. Andrew Mangiapane is coming off a 35-goal season while Tyler Toffoli has consistently scored 20 goals a year in the league. Players like Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman are good two-way players. Dillon Dube and Calle Jarnkrok bring the energy and tenacity, while Milan Lucic and the fourth line are big bodies that wear teams down.

For the Oilers, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman are solid players in their own right. Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi are solid complimentary pieces to a line. However, they don't have the depth throughout their lineup like Calgary does. They often play with just 11 forwards and double-shift McDavid or Draisaitl while limiting minutes for their bottom-line guys. Will that style of constant mixing, matching and double-shifting wear on Edmonton during a playoff series against a big and physical Calgary team?

The other burning question for Edmonton will be between the pipes. We saw Mike Smith in action in the first round, and he was tremendous. Only Jake Oettinger of the Stars did a better job in terms of goals saved above expectation in the first round. However, Smith is 40 years old and hasn't always been the model of consistency. Calgary will generate offense, and the Oilers are going to need Smith to be good again in this series. Will he be able to match or even outperform Jacob Markstrom? That's going to be a necessity for Edmonton to pull off the upset.

How to bet the series

As we prepare for Game 1 on Wednesday, the Calgary Flames are -200 favorites to eliminate the Edmonton Oilers and advance to the Western Conference final.

Calgary was the better team during the regular season and it had better underlying metrics than its rivals from within the province. While the Flames don't have the high-end talent the Oilers do, they make up for it with an expected edge in depth, defense and goaltending.

Not only do the numbers support the Flames being the favorites here, so does common playoff hockey discourse. The Flames are a deep, big, heavy, defensively spectacular team with good goaltending. Edmonton is the faster team and perhaps the flashier team, but their defense is suspect and their depth is lacking. They're not as big as Edmonton and aren't known for playing heavy hockey. Flames coach Darryl Sutter won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, and this Flames team is in a lot of ways similar to that group.

Calgary is +110 to wrap this series up in six games or less, while Edmonton is -135 to either win the series or at least force a Game 7. The series is -190 to go at least six games, so while the Oilers are underdogs, oddsmakers are expecting a longer series.

Calgary is +400 to win the series in five games, and the same price is available for them to win in six games or seven games if you want to take a shot at the exact series score. The Flames are +105 to win Game 1 and then go on to win the series. Calgary is a -160 favorite on home ice in Game 1.

If you think the Oilers can pull off the upset and knock out the Flames in this series, Edmonton is +165 to advance to the conference finals. We've been waiting for this series for over 30 years, and it should be a good one out west between two big-time rivals.