With all due respect to an Eastern Conference final that brings plenty of star power to the table itself, the hockey world is foaming with anticipation for the Western Conference showdown between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche. The most obvious reason? Connor McDavid versus Nathan MacKinnon.
Of course these teams have a lot more stars, but the primetime battle between the two will be the main course thanks to a variety of factors: Both are at the heights of their powers, both play center and they also happen to be two of the best skaters in the league. And neither has had any sustained post-season success in the NHL until now.
McDavid and MacKinnon are both first overall picks who have ascended to the top of the hockey world, but when you go that high, it’s usually because the team that picked you isn’t very good. Both players went through rebuilds that at times looked scary and hopeless, but with good work done by the Oilers and Avs front offices, those sour days are in the rearview mirror.
Having said that, McDavid’s championship pedigree only extends to international play, where he has won gold medals with Canada at the World Championship, world juniors and world under-18s. As for MacKinnon, he also has a World Championship gold with Canada and won a QMJHL title and Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads. Needless to say, both are well beyond motivated to get that Stanley Cup ring.
And that, to me, makes this one of the most anticipated series in a long time. Sure, Artemi Panarin vs. Nikita Kucherov will be fun when the Rangers tackle the Lightning in the East, but Kucherov already has two Cups to his name. Thinking back, this Avs-Oilers series may not have a parallel since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin went to war in 2009. At the time, neither young superstar had won the Cup yet, but both were electrifying talents with the competitive drive to match. Pittsburgh ended up winning that second-round series over Washington in seven games, three of which went to overtime. So yeah, entertainment was served.
And on those Pens-Caps teams, the superstars were not alone. Crosby had Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin had Nicklas Backstrom and both teams had excellent surrounding casts.
By the same token, this Edmonton-Colorado series is much more than just McDavid and MacKinnon.
Leon Draisaitl, playing on an obviously banged-up ankle, has been just as impressive for Edmonton as McDavid, piling up points and giving teams more than they can handle. Evander Kane has done his job as a goal-scorer and nuclear threat in any scrums (though the Battle of Alberta had a lot less scrapping than anticipated), while Zach Hyman has been that complimentary player that does all the little things right. In net, Mike Smith has turned in some incredible performances – and when things have gone south, he has at least been entertaining.
Similarly, Colorado boasts one of the most electrifying defensemen in the game today in Cale Makar, while the forward corps is pick-your-poison thanks to the breakout season by Nazem Kadri and reliable mainstays such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
Colorado was a favorite coming into the playoffs, but based on how McDavid and Draisaitl have led the Oilers, is it really out of the question that Edmonton could prevail? That’s what makes this series to exciting to forecast. If any team has the speed to keep up with McDavid, it’s Colorado – but that’s still a big ‘if.’ And with the Oilers getting contributions from other places, this is not going to be a two-man show. But if it all pops off like we expect it will, this series is going to be the best kind of circus: one with thrills for everyone in the audience.