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What to watch in the Colorado Avalanche’s third-round NHL Western Conference playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers:
Who has the edge?
The Avalanche and Oilers ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in goals per game in the regular season (3.76 and 3.55). In the playoffs, both high-octane offenses have shifted into a higher gear — the Oilers-Avalanche are 1-2 in goals per game (4.33 and 4.30, respectively). The Oilers’ top line of Connor McDavid centering Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane have combined for 26 goals and 67 points in 12 playoff games. McDavid is the world’s best player and simply took over the Calgary series (12 points) and Kane is the beneficiary of McDavid’s passes (league-high 12 goals). The Avalanche have five forwards with at least three goals, led by Nathan MacKinnon’s eight, Gabe Landeskog’s six and Nazem Kadri’s five. McDavid/Draisaitl give Edmonton the advantage. Edge: Oilers
The Avalanche’s Cale Makar has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) and is second in average ice time among players who advanced to the second round (26:42). Makar and partner Devon Toews drive the Avs’ attack out of its zone. The emerging player in the playoffs has been Bo Byram, who has six assists and is plus-7 in 10 games. The Avalanche has overcome losing Sam Girard to a broken sternum in Game 3 of the St. Louis series, but have no remaining margin for error injury-wise. The Oilers’ top pair of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci are plus-11, respectively, and are averaging over 20 minutes of ice time. Evan Bouchard has eight points and Duncan Keith five points, but are both minus-3. Former Avalanche player Tyson Barrie averages 18:10 per game. Edge: Avalanche
Both teams are relying on journeymen to help them to the Stanley Cup Final. Edmonton’s Mike Smith, 40, has played for five teams and is in the conference final for the first time since 2012 with Arizona. The Avalanche’s Darcy Kuemper, 32, has played for four teams and is in the conference finals for the first time in his 10-year career. Smith is 8-3 in the playoffs with a 2.70 goals against average. Kuemper is 6-2 with a 2.44 goals against average. Smith is aggressive playing the puck up the ice, so the Avalanche must be wary of that on its line changes. Against two surging offenses, the best case for Smith and Kuemper is to not allow any soft goals … because these teams are going to score. Good luck, guys. Edge: Even
Power play — Avalanche is at 34.5% (first) and Edmonton is at 28.2% (fifth). Penalty kill — Avalanche is at 73.1% (seventh out of eight teams which advanced to second round) and Edmonton is at 85.4% (third). MacKinnon’s four power-play goals is tied for the NHL lead with four other players. The top unit is led by Makar up top and includes four forwards, usually MacKinnon, Landeskog, Kadri and Mikko Rantanen. Edmonton’s top penalty-killing forwards are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2:27), Zach Hyman (2:03) and Ryan McLeod (2:02). The Oilers’ power play has been led by (who else?) Draisaitl (seven points) and McDavid (six points). The Avalanche’s top penalty killers among the forwards are Darren Helm (2:23 average per game), Andrew Cogliano (1:55) and Valeri Nichushkin (1:34). Edge: Oilers
Promoted from the AHL, Woodcroft took over the flailing Oilers on Feb. 10 and led them to a 26-9-3 record in the regular season to secure a second-place finish in the Pacific Division. Woodcroft’s best decision of the first round was putting Draisaitl and McDavid together on a line; the Oilers beat Los Angeles in Games 6-7 and then Calgary in five games (four consecutive wins). Fourteen Oilers and Avalanche players apiece have played in all of their teams’ playoff games. Bednar has pushed several proper line-up buttons, willing to mix up his forward units and giving Logan O’Connor and Alex Newhook opportunities in the St. Louis series. One of these coaches will make the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. Edge: Avalanche
— Ryan O’Halloran
Five things to watch
1. MacKinnon vs. McDavid
Duh, right? The matchup of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid vs. the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon should be great for the league (why does anybody watch the NBA when an NHL playoff game is on?). Ages 25 (McDavid) and 26 (MacKinnon), these are two players at the height of their powers looking to make their first Stanley Cup Final. McDavid has a whopping 26 points in 12 playoff games and MacKinnon has 13 points in 10 games. Because both players are sound defensively, their coaches won’t shy away from matching them against each other. Buckle up, folks.
2. Getting Mikko going
From 2018-20, Avalanche winger Mikko Rantanen had 18 goals and 30 assists in 37 playoff games, a consistent offensive performer. What’s going on this playoff season with No. 96? Entering the Edmonton series, Rantanen (36 goals in 75 regular-season games) has one goal (an empty-net tally at Nashville) and 10 assists in 10 games. He is second among Avs forwards in ice time (21:01), but his 24 shots on goal are tied for seventh on the team. We may never know if he is nursing an injury that impacts his shooting, but he needs to pick it up.
3. Bottom-six scoring
The Avalanche’s third and fourth lines were quiet during the first nine playoff games until J.T. Compher scored twice and Darren Helm potted the winner in Game 6 at St. Louis. If this series is as high flying as we expect, the bottom six forwards for both teams will need to pitch in. For the Avs, that means contributions from Compher, Helm, Logan O’Connor (one goal) and, if he’s in the lineup, Andre Burakovsky (one goal). For the Oilers, that means Kailer Yamamoto (two goals in 12 games) and Ryan McLeod (one goal).
4. Trading chances
The Oilers (52) and Avalanche (43) rank first and second in goals scored during the playoffs. Calgary couldn’t trade chances with the Oilers and the Predators/Blues had no or little luck against the Avalanche. As much as it will be painful for coaches Jay Woodcroft and Jared Bednar behind the bench, these teams are built to create odd-man rushes with fine transition games out of their defensive zone. The second period of games merits monitoring. Edmonton has scored 25 second-period goals, six more than the next-closest team (Rangers, entering their Game 7 on Monday).
5. Taxing travel
Current restrictions require people to provide a negative COVID-19 test before entering the United States via airplane. For the Oilers on Sunday night, that meant a seven-hour trip when a normal Edmonton-to-Denver flight is 2 1/2 hours. They flew from Edmonton to Vancouver, bused across the border from Vancouver to Bellingham, Wash., and flew from Bellingham to Denver, arriving at 8 p.m. after a 1:06 p.m. departure. Potentially doing that two more times (ahead of Games 5 and 7) equals a lot of time on the plane and bus.
— Ryan O’Halloran
Mike Chambers, Avalanche beat reporter: I see each team winning big one game — such as an Avalanche 7-2 triumph in one of the first two games in Denver. With so much top-end scoring on both sides, there’s bound to be a blowout or two. Then I see a goaltender from either team stealing one. And at least one overtime game is inevitable. It won’t be a short series unless one team gets all the bounces. Avalanche in six.
Ryan O’Halloran, sports reporter: When the teams are as evenly matched as the Oilers and Avalanche appear to be, most of the projected key players are on the conference finals stage for the first time and both clubs can win on the road, I default back to make a pick based on who has the best player. The Oilers have Connor McDavid. Oilers in seven.
Mark Kiszla, sports columnist: Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to goalies. You could drop Dominik Hasek and Jacques Plante at the prime of their Hall-worthy best in this series, and it might not stop the Avs or Oilers from putting a five-spot on the scoreboard in any given game. What’s the over/under on goalie changes before the Western Conference finals is over? I’ll put it at 1.5. Avalanche in seven.
Sean Keeler, sports columnist: Is this gonna be fun, or what? MacKinnon, Makar, McDavid and Draisaitl, going end-to-end. Tyson Barrie back on Chopper Circle. Josh Manson vs. his dad. Take the over, kids, and enjoy the ride. At some point, the Avs will run into a goaltender who can consistently snuff out their firepower up and down the roster. But Oilers stopper Mike Smith, much as we dig the beard, ain’t that guy. Avalanche in six.
Lori Punko, deputy sports editor: Hockey fans are getting a marquee matchup in Connor McDavid vs. Nathan MacKinnon, two of the NHL’s elite forwards. How effective Jared Bednar and Jay Woodcroft are in setting up their defensive lines against these powerhouses will be critical. Veteran Erik Johnson will have to take on a strong leadership role with the young defensive core of Devon Toews, Cale Makar, Josh Manson and Bo Byram. If goalie Darcy Kuemper regains the confidence he displayed before he was injured in Game 3 vs. the Predators, he can be a star in this series. Avalanche in six.
Matt Schubert, deputy sports editor: For the first, perhaps only, time this postseason, the Avs will not have the best player when Game 1 begins Tuesday night. That distinction belongs to Connor McDavid, a generational superstar who’s powered back-to-back series wins for the Oilers after winning just one in his previous six seasons. If Nathan MacKinnon can play him to a draw, this thing is over in five. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Avalanche in seven.