Avalanche ready for star-studded challenge vs. Oilers in Western Conference Final

Gene Principe details both the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers recent postseason obstacles and previews their clash in the Western Conference Final.

DENVER — Call it the battle of the ceiling busters.

The star power of the matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche figures to be intoxicating. But the harsh reality for one of these two teams is that despite the important step (or multiple steps) forward, one of these talented clubs is going to be eliminated and will be heading back to the drawing board.

At this time of the year, it doesn’t take long for elation to be replaced by disappointment.

Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic had a first grasp of that part of the equation as he spoke with reporters on Monday at Ball Arena.

Was there a bit of a sense of relief, like many of his players expressed after dispatching the St. Louis Blues in six games? Absolutely.

But when you’ve been to the top of the mountain before, you don’t spend a lot of time patting yourself on the back for making it to the midway point.

“And that was the goal for that round. Now we're playing a real tough Edmonton Oilers team that's been one of the best teams in the last three months in the league. So we're not facing the third round now, we're facing the Edmonton Oilers in a seven-game series.”

“There's been a lot of talk about the second round in the last couple of years. We really don't look at getting out of the second round; that wasn't the goal this year,” said Sakic. “It was nice getting past the second round, but each year was a different circumstance, different team we played. This last year, we did a great job against the St Louis Blues. That was an excellent opportunity.

Oilers GM Ken Holland took a similar approach in discussing the joy of moving past the disappointment of a first-round sweep to the Winnipeg Jets (one that included three overtime losses) in 2021 and the 2020 four-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round.

“You have to be there multiple times and you’re going to have disappointments. And you have to learn from those disappointments,” said Holland. “The manager learns from those disappoints, makes some tweaks in the offseason, the coach learns from those disappointments and makes some tweaks and the players learn from those disappointments and are more prepared for the next go-around.

“I think (with) the experiences, our team was more ready for this year’s playoffs. They may be a little more mature because of the internal growth and some of the moves that we made and then (head coach Jay Woodcroft’s experiences). It’s all come together here down the stretch and into the playoffs.”

The Oilers are here after making quick work of the Calgary Flames in the Battle of Alberta, while the Avalanche overcame a stumble in Game 5 against the St. Louis Blues where they blew a three-goal cushion, then restored the lead before giving up a goal in the final minute and another in overtime.

While much of the sizzle going into the series revolves around MacKinnon and McDavid, both players went out of their way to focus on the team element - even if the hockey world is viewing this through the lens of something similar to Gretzky vs. Lemieux or Crosby vs. Oveckin.

“I don’t know. I think he’s the best, I’ve said it. I think he’s been the best for a little bit now and it’s going to take a full team effort to stop him, same with (Leon) Draisaitl,” MacKinnon said of McDavid. “But they’re deeper than teams give them credit for. They’re very deep, they wouldn’t be where they are without the full team effort.

“For me, I’m not really thinking about that (individual matchup) a whole lot. Obviously, I see that stuff but you know, hopefully that gets more viewers and lowers escrow. But other than that, I don’t care.”

Here are five other important matchups that could play a role in determining a winner as the two teams fight for the opportunity to advance to the Stanley Cup final beginning on Tuesday night:

Leon Draisaitl vs. Cale Makar and Devon Toews

Some of the anticipation going into the series revolves around the matchup game. For the games in Denver, does Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar want to go top lines against top lines and let the fireworks sort things out?

It wouldn’t be a surprise, since Bednar encouraged the matchup between MacKinnon and Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly throughout the opening round, even when he had last change. If this is the case and Draisaitl remains alongside McDavid and isn’t centring his own line, that means the top defence pairing of the Avalanche figures to need to use its mobility to defend and ability to break up plays and get the puck moving north in transition.

Of course, this is a collective challenge for all five players on the ice, but Draisaitl is coming off a series where he produced 15 assists to set a single-series record (in five games) to go along with two goals. Makar and Toews also bring an offensive component to the table and the more they have the puck, the less time they need to spend defending against Draisaitl and McDavid.

Nazem Kadri vs. Evander Kane

How the matchup game evolves will determine how much time these two spend going head-to-head against one another, but this is the battle between pending unrestricted free agents. And these are not secondary scorers, they’re a big part of the primary weaponry.

Kane already has two hat tricks in these playoffs, while Kadri has one of his own. To say that Kane has been a great fit with the Oilers is an understatement, as he leads the NHL with 12 goals and has brought a physical presence that has been lacking.

When he was still a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kadri often worked to get under the skin of McDavid and that could be part of the game plan in this series as well. However, Kane could serve as a potential deterrent on that front as well. Kadri brings a physical component to this series as well and given how both players like to get involved, it would surprise no one if one or several of those collisions or post-whistle scrums involved these two fierce competitors. Both players figure to cash in this summer, but another strong showing in this series could potentially boost their value to their current teams or on the open market.

Gabe Landeskog vs. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

This is the battle of the top-two picks of the 2011 NHL Draft, where Nugent-Hopkins went first overall to the Oilers and Landeskog went next to the Avalanche. Both have spent their entire careers with their respective organizations and have played a valuable role in each franchises getting back to this point.

Landeskog chose to stick around this past offseason despite being a pending unrestricted free agent and the same can be said for Nugent-Hopkins. Yes, both players received long-term and are paid handsomely but they could have opted to take their services elsewhere. Instead, they planned to stick with the programs where they’d invested plenty of sweat equity and now they’re seeing some of the fruits of that labour.

To this point, the two players are tied in points with 11 while Landeskog holds a slight edge (6-4) when it comes to goal scoring in the playoffs so far. Both players figure to leave a mark on this series as well.

Mike Smith vs. Darcy Kuemper

A series of this magnitude wouldn’t be complete without a look at the battle between the men behind the masks and this matchup is an intriguing one. The Avalanche have been stingy defensively, but often that’s meant the limited workload hasn’t allowed Kuemper to get into much of a rhythm. His .904 save percentage in nine starts leaves plenty to be desired, as does the minus-3 goals above expected that he’s allowed, according to moneypuck.

However, the 2.45 goals-against average is steady and he isn’t the only goalie in this series who has encountered a few hiccups so far. But despite the occasional challenge, whether it’s an early pull in Game 1 against the Flames, a 132-footer allowed or an unfortunate turnover, Smith has come up with an abundance of massive saves when his team has needed him most, leading to an impressive .925 save percentage (his 2.70 GAA is skewed because of the aforementioned early pull against the Flames). Smith is fourth in the playoffs in goals saved above expected (8.8) and he’ll need to be sharp for this series to live up to the billing.

Zach Hyman vs. Mikko Rantanen

These two wingers play completely different styles, but Hyman has come exactly as advertised when he was signed to a big-ticket (seven years, $38.5 million, $5.5 million AAV) free agent deal by Holland.

Much more than just a conscientious and tenacious checker, Hyman contributes to both special-teams units and is an energetic forward who is on a goal-scoring tear, with eight goals and 12 games - including at least one game in each of the past five games. That’s a serious heater and he’ll need to continue chipping in for the Oilers to advance.

As for Rantanen, it’s been an interesting playoff so far. Yes, he’s operating at a point-per-game rate (11 points in 11 games), but he’s only scored one goal and that one was into an empty net.

Rantanen led the Avalanche in goals (36) and points (92) and recorded 254 shots on goal in 75 games during the regular season. But he’s only managed 24 shots on goal so far and he has more to give and he has the ability to have a massive impact on the outcome of this series if he can get into the offensive groove.

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