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(C1) COLORADO AVALANCHE VS. (P2) EDMONTON OILERS

This series should be a treat. After all, we have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are having two of the best postseason runs in NHL history, facing off against one of the most complete teams we’ve seen in a while.

This matchup might not have drawn as much excitement even two months ago though. After all, if we were evaluating these teams based on the regular season alone, there’s no question that Colorado would be considered the heavy favorites.

With Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog in Avalanche jerseys, Colorado is one of the few teams that can potentially counter the Oilers top forwards with their own elite players. Then if you look past the potential for a stacked top line, the disparity between these two squads in 2021-22 becomes apparent. Colorado had eight players record at least 50 points in the regular season while Edmonton had just four. Colorado had six players score at least 25 goals while Edmonton had three.

It’s not just a question of Colorado having the deeper offense either. Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz proved to be a solid goaltending duo throughout the campaign while Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen were a constant question mark for Edmonton.

Things have been a bit different since the playoffs started though. Smith, who struggled mightily for most of the season both on the ice and in terms of injuries, hit his stride in April and has carried that momentum into the playoffs. He hasn’t been perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but with an 8-3 record, 2.70 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 12 starts he’s been part of the reason Edmonton has gotten this far. In fact, in terms of save percentage, he’s done better in the playoffs than Avalanche starter Kuemper, who has a 2.44 GAA, but also owns an uninspired .904 save percentage.

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It’s also hard to overstate just how good McDavid and Draisaitl have been for Edmonton. They each have seven goals and 26 points in 12 playoff games. Right now they both look like real contenders to break Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 47 points in a single postseason run. Having one player who can live up to Gretzky’s magic is incredible, having two is simply unheard of.

When it comes to the rest of the league this year, no one else is close to them. The best players on Colorado are defensemen Cale Makar and forward Nathan MacKinnon, who each have 13 points through 10 postseason games.

McDavid and Draisaitl aren’t the only drivers of Edmonton’s offense either. Evander Kane has managed to score 12 goals and 15 points in 12 contests. If we’re talking about playoff records, we have to point out that Kane is a candidate to surpass the current goals scored mark of 19, set by Reggie Leach in 1975-76 and then matched by Jari Kurri in 1984-85.

Zach Hyman has also worked out well in his first playoff run with Edmonton, scoring eight goals and 12 points in 12 games and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t been far behind with four goals and 11 points in 12 contests. I mentioned above that the Avalanche were clearly the deeper offensive team during the regular season, but the Oilers looked just fine in that department over their first two rounds.

It’s also encouraging that Edmonton was able to overwhelm the Calgary Flames offensively in the second round. The Flames were one of the league’s top defensive teams in the regular season and had an elite goaltender in Jacob Markstrom. The fact that Calgary couldn’t slow down the Oilers’ offense at all is telling.

On paper, Colorado still has the better team. There’s a reason the Avalanche dominated the regular season with a 56-19-7 record and continued to win even during periods where their star players were injured. The Avalanche can genuinely ice two first lines. They have one of the best defensemen in the league in Makar, but what’s sometimes overlooked is that they have another blueliner who is nearly as effective in Devon Toews. They have two high-end goaltenders in Kuemper and Francouz. While Edmonton, even with its increased depth, is very much dependent on McDavid and Draisaitl to lead their offense, the Avalanche are far less dependent on any duo.

Here’s one way to look at it: Edmonton really has one clear road to victory and that’s the path where McDavid and Draisaitl continue to play like it’s the 1980s while their supporting cast continues to play at their peak level. Colorado has multiple paths forward. Kuemper could take charge of this series. The Avalanche could win out in a tight, defensive series. Colorado could simply match the Oilers goal-for-goal with their own stars. However, while there’s a lot of ways to envision the Avalanche moving on to the Stanley Cup Final, these series aren’t played on paper and with how Edmonton has done lately, well, we could be in for a series worthy of the history books.

Players To Watch

Leon Draisaitl – With how Draisaitl has been performing lately, it’s easy to forget that there’s a good chance he’s hurt. He seemed to suffer a lower-body injury during Game 6 of the Oilers’ first round series against Los Angeles. In spite of that, Draisaitl not only played in the second round, he thrived with two goals and 17 points in five contests. His 15 assists was the most of any player ever in a single playoff series. The best Gretzky ever did was 14.

Connor McDavid – McDavid didn’t do quite as good as Draisaitl in the second round, but he was certainly dominate in his own right with three goals and 12 points over that five-game series. On top of that, McDavid was unreal in the first round and has no recorded 10 multi-point games over 12 playoff games this year. McDavid’s seven goals and 26 points in 12 postseason games is more than any player got in the entirety of the 2019 playoffs and that’s not an isolated example. In fact, McDavid and Draisaitl (who also has 26 points) are already tied for 17th place on the scoring list for playoff runs in the salary cap era. As mentioned above, if they keep playing like they had, there’s a real chance that one or both will eventually break Gretzky’s record for the all-time best playoff run too.

Nazem Kadri – Kadri was the victim of racist comments and threats over social media after he collided into Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington during Game 3. The messages directed at Kadri were serious enough to spark a police investigation. With those terrible circumstances in the air, Kadri played his best game of the playoffs, scoring a hat trick and adding an assist in Game 4. After being a solid second-line center for years, Kadri found another level this season with 28 goals and 87 points in 71 contests. He’s similarly having a great playoff run with five goals and 10 points in 10 games. Given what the Avalanche are up against, they really need Kane to continue to make big contributions.

Darcy Kuemper – Kuemper was good enough against St. Louis in the second round, but Edmonton might prove to be a far bigger test for him. As mentioned above, he has a .904 save percentage so far in the 2022 playoffs. It’s unlikely that Colorado will be able to win this series unless that climbs up in the Western Conference Final. For what it’s worth, Kuemper did play against Edmonton three times in the regular season, going 2-1-0 with a 2.62 GAA and .921 save percentage.

Additional Series Notes:

Although Draisaitl and perhaps others are playing hurt, the Oilers don’t have much in the way of injured players who are unavailable. Kyle Turris and Oscar Klefbom are the two exceptions. They’re both on the injured reserve list and aren’t expected to play in the 2022 playoffs.

The Avalanche will be without defenseman Samuel Girard, who suffered a broken sternum during the second round. He had a goal and three points in seven games while averaging 17:59 minutes during the 2022 postseason.

This is the first time the Colorado Avalanche have made it to the Conference Final since 2002. For the Oilers, it’s their first trip since 2006.

These two teams haven’t faced off in the playoffs since 1998. In that quarterfinals series, Edmonton won 4-3. The Oilers at that time were led by Doug Weight and had Curtis Joseph in goal while Colorado had Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in their prime and Patrick Roy in goal.

This series will feature four players on the top-10 list for career playoff points-per-game (min. 25 games). Draisaitl is tied with Mario Lemieux for second place with 1.61 points-per-game, McDavid ranks fifth with 1.45, MacKinnon holds sixth place at 1.37, and Rantanen is in 10th place at 1.19. Of course, points-per-game needs to be taken with a grain of salt when you’re measuring players who are still in the prime of their careers against players who have already gone through their entire career, but it still highlights just how special it is to see forwards of this caliber all set to play against each other.

Colorado has excelled in the man advantage during the playoffs with a 34.5% success rate, but their penalty kill has left something to be desired at 73.1%. By contrast, Edmonton has done somewhat worth on the power play at 28.2% but has been more effective at killing penalties at 85.4%.

Edmonton has taken a little bit to get going in the 2022 playoffs, but when they do, they’re extremely dangerous. The Oilers have been outscored 11-9 in the first period and then they have dominated the second frame 25-15 and the third period 17-10.

Colorado has played a more consistent game, outscoring their opponents 12-7, 15-11, and 14-8 in the first, second, and third periods respectively.

Based on that, you might assume that the Oilers are the better team when being scored on first, but that hasn’t been the case. Edmonton is 6-0 in games where they’ve scored first compared to 2-4 in contests where they’ve trailed first. Meanwhile, Colorado has been just fine with either scenario. They’re 4-1 in games where they’ve scored first and also 4-1 in games where they’ve trailed first.

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