The Edmonton Oilers are the last Canadian team standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and after getting through the rival Calgary Flames in a quick, but tough, five-game series, they now walk into Colorado to face an Avalanche team that has been maturing as a contender for a couple of seasons and seems to be blooming this spring.
So will this be the end of a nice run to write home about for Edmonton, or will they be able to topple a team many had picked to win it all a few weeks ago?
While Colorado was expected to be here all season long, Edmonton's road has been a lot less secure and there was even a time when just qualifying for the playoffs wasn't guaranteed. But they have been coming together as the season has gone along, with improved defensive play after the coaching switch to Jay Woodcroft, more stable goaltending from Mike Smith than what was happening in the crease over the first few months of the season, and the best all-around playoff performances we've yet seen from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
They could be peaking at just the right time. And Colorado is already there waiting for them.
There is plenty of star power atop both lineups that could lead to an explosive series of offence and will certainly entertain with an endless stream of awe-inspiring highlights. Here's a look at the Western Conference Final.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
What we've learned about the Oilers
Connor McDavid, good.
Leon Draisaitl, good.
The duo have been historic, really.
The top two scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs both suit up for the Oilers and have often shared a line in this run. But it's not just that they're leading the NHL in post-season scoring, it's how far ahead of the competition they are. Both players average 2.17 points per game and have a 10-point lead on the pack behind.
McDavid gets most of the ink, and deservedly so as he's personally taken over games on the regular, but Draisaitl has earned just as much attention for his contributions and where he should fit in the Conn Smythe discussion after two rounds, especially considering that it seems like he's playing injured. The German's Round 2 efforts were sublime, piling up 17 points in five games against the Flames (to McDavid's 12) and recording at least three points in every game. Absolutely ridiculous performance.
But we didn't really learn that McDavid and Draisaitl were elite players in the first two rounds, did we? Somehow, they've both elevated to yet another level. Is there a league above the NHL for them?
While those two are the driving forces at play behind Edmonton's first trip to Round 3 since 2006, there have been other key performers. For example, Evander Kane, the risky mid-season UFA signing, has been a smashing success on the top unit and leads the playoffs with 12 goals in 12 games, including a couple of hat tricks already. If Edmonton advances, perhaps he'll have a shot at the all-time record of 19 playoff goals in a season, held jointly by Reggie Leach and Jarri Kurri. Zach Hyman led the Oilers in goal scoring against the Flames with six and he'll start the West Final on a five-game scoring streak. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' play at centre (six points against the Flames) has allowed the Oilers to load up that top line and not feel an offensive pinch below.
But the primary worry about these Oilers all season was the goaltending, and specifically if Mike Smith could be the guy to get them through, or at least to not scuttle the alien performances of the superstars up front. It's been 11 years since Smith was outstanding in getting the Arizona Coyotes to the West Final and though he's not willing the 2022 Oilers on in the same way, he has been good enough with a .927 playoff save percentage that is better than the netminder he'll face in Round 3.
There certainly have been moments, though, including a puckhandling gaffe that cost the Oilers Game 1 of Round 1, and a goal against from the other end of the ice in Round 2 that allowed the Flames back into a Game 4 that Edmonton won anyway. Smith will continue to be the ultimate wild card.
What we've learned about the Avalanche
After being eliminated in the second round of the past three Stanley Cup Playoffs, the fourth time was the charm for the contending Avs to get over the hump and return to the conference final for the first time since they were a powerhouse led by Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in 2002. Now Sakic's in the GM chair and the careful build up he's overseen has brought Colorado all the way back to those days, with star power up and down the lineup.
The Oilers are used to having an advantage on teams at the top of their lineup with the McDavid/Draisaitl duo, but the Avs have something of an answer to them with Nathan MacKinnon, who's somewhere in the mix of the top five players in the world today himself. A bull of a player, MacKinnon will go around or through your team for offence and will be by far the biggest handful Edmonton's defencemen have had to manage so far.
Where Edmonton's main threats are atop the depth chart among their forwards, the Avs can really sting you from anywhere. Nazem Kadri has carried over his career-best regular season performance into the playoffs with a point per game effort and he's not really come close to stepping over any line into suspension territory yet. And Edmonton will not have an answer for Cale Makar, who has the same 1.30 points per game average MacKinnon does, but from the blue line. And don't overlook his partner Devon Toews, who has a point in seven of Colorado's 10 playoff games to date and may just be the second-best blueliner in this series.
Yes, the Avs seem to be levelling up to their full potential as one of the top contenders this season, taking no time at all getting through Nashville (sweep) and St. Louis (six games). The quickness with which they've arrived in the West Final could help them through the last couple of legs.
Interestingly, though, goaltending may be a situation to watch with the Avs. Colorado is the best team in these playoffs at limiting shots against (27 per game), scoring chances against (20.03 per 60) and high danger opportunities against (8.32 per 60), but Darcy Kuemper has underperformed the team's expected goals against rate.
He hasn't allowed a pile of actual goals, with a 2.44 GAA and only one game in which he allowed more than three, but that's been helped by a relatively lighter workload than some of his counterparts around the league. Kuemper's minus-2.18 goals saved above expected will be the lowest mark of any remaining netminder and if the Oilers' superstars can do a better job of getting high-quality opportunities than either Nashville or St. Louis did (and who's betting against McDavid and Draisaitl doing just that), this could possibly become an issue for Colorado.
Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Oilers X-Factor: Mike Smith
Like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you're going to get from Smith one play to the next. Edmonton's hoping it's more of a caramel filling performance in Round 3 than a maraschino cherry.
In seven of 11 playoff games so far Smith has allowed at least three goals, which normally could be a pressure point this time of year, but Edmonton's explosive offence has given Smith much more of a safety net so far. But now it gets interesting. Where the Oilers have a league-best 4.33 goals per game, Colorado is right behind them with 4.30 goals per game. If there was one team that could match Edmonton goal for goal, this is it.
So what will we get from Smith now? Will the Avs just be too relentless and expose Edmonton's expected weakness in the Final Four? Will Edmonton's own offence still be able to cancel out whatever Colorado can throw at them? Or can Smith elevate and outperform Kuemper at the other end, which may be the most important X-Factor for Edmonton?
Avalanche X-Factor: Nathan MacKinnon
We expect a huge series from MacKinnon and a lot of attention will be paid to the matchup he'll have against McDavid, who has carved up the competition through two rounds. MacKinnon has certainly taken over games all on his own -- his late go-ahead goal in Game 5 against St. Louis was a superior individual effort that looked like it would carry them into Round 3 before Colorado let the win slip away in OT. But McDavid, with less of a supporting cast, has regularly taken his team upon his shoulders shift after shift as he's put up playoff numbers not seen in Edmonton since they were winning Cups in the '80s with Wayne Gretzky. Will MacKinnon feel the pressure to match whatever magic McDavid throws down in their own little head-to-head narrative?
We have no doubt MacKinnon is one of the few who could match McDavid and, in fact, Edmonton may not present as much of a defensive challenge to him as Nashville or St. Louis did. If MacKinnon matches, or outperforms, McDavid in this series, there won't be many other places in the lineup where Edmonton will be able to find an advantage over Colorado.