The Colorado Avalanche were expected to reach this stage of the postseason, but the Edmonton Oilers weren’t a favorite to make it to the Western Conference finals.
An upset of Calgary in the second round has put Edmonton on the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2006, but it will have to overcome the top seed in the conference. Game 1 of the series is Tuesday night in Denver.
The series features two of the best players in the NHL in Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche and Connor McDavid of the Oilers. McDavid and teammate Leon Draisaitl lead the NHL in postseason scoring with 26 points apiece through the first two rounds, and it was McDavid’s overtime goal in Game 5 against the Flames closed out the series.
It seemed unlikely Edmonton would be in this position in late January after it had dropped 13 of 15 games. But general manager Ken Holland fired coach Dave Tippett and elevated Jay Woodcroft to the job, and then signed forward Evander Kane after he was released by San Jose.
Kane lead the NHL with 12 playoff goals. The changes helped the Oilers reach the conference finals for the first time in 16 years, and something Woodcroft saw possible when he took over Feb. 10.
“When I walked into that room (in) February, I was bullish on our players because I saw a sincere desire to win,” Woodcroft said. “Not just the desire to win, but I saw people willing to pay the price to win.”
Edmonton has plenty of talent, including Draisaitl, who moved from centering the second line to playing wing on the top line with McDavid.
While the Oilers have arguably the best one-two scoring tandem in the NHL, the Avalanche rely on depth to succeed. MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri each had a hat trick in their six-game series win over St. Louis but Colorado eliminated the Blues with goals from the bottom six forwards.
J.T. Compher had the first two of Game 6 and Darren Helm, one of the few players over 30 on the roster, scored the series clincher with 5.6 seconds left.
The Avalanche defensive corps will be challenged to stop McDavid and Draisaitl. It is a relatively strong unit despite the loss of Samuel Girard to a broken sternum in Game 3 against St. Louis. But it will take more than the six defensemen to stop Edmonton’s top players.
“It’s got to be a full-team effort to shut those guys down,” MacKinnon said. “But we’re confident. We feel if we play our best, we can get it done against anybody.”
The play of Bowen Byram has helped. The defenseman missed significant time with concussion issues but has played well in the playoffs despite being just 20 years old.
“I think when I’m just letting my instincts take over, that’s when I’m playing my best,” Byram said. “I’m not thinking too much, not trying to do too much.”
This is the first time these teams will meet in the playoffs since 1998, when the Oilers upset Colorado in the first round. The Avalanche had a 3-1 lead in that series but lost the last three games, including Game 7 at home.
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