Connor McDavid versus Nathan MacKinnon.
That’s it. That’s the lede.
That’s the selling point of this series, a heavyweight tilt between two of the best players in the world, finally going toe-to-toe at the peak of their powers. It does not get better than this. It’s this generation’s version of the epic battles between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — but faster. You know it’s a big deal when the NHL actually markets its players for once.
This series could be between McDavid and MacKinnon plus 40 other random dudes and still be interesting, but each team is thankfully even more than that. Cale Makar, Leon Draisaitl, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog — the stars will shine bright in what should be an exciting, high-octane series with offense galore.
As tantalizing as the individual battles might be along with the promise of lots of goals, there is one thing this series unfortunately lacks that slightly brings down the intrigue: an even matchup.
That’s not meant to downplay the Edmonton Oilers, who are legitimately proving to be one of the league’s best teams. The Oilers are often the butt of many jokes, but they have been a legitimate force under Jay Woodcroft and a berth in the conference finals is their reward for it. They earned their spot here, but their spot here means a matchup against its toughest foe yet.
The lopsided odds are more a comment on Edmonton’s competition, the Colorado Avalanche, who finally got over the second-round hump en route to potentially proving they are the best team — not one of them. The Avalanche have been a steamroller for a few years now, building a deep team led by some of the very best players in the league. They’re a team with few holes and an incredible top end — they would be heavy favorites against anyone, not just the Oilers. This is actually Colorado’s closest series yet as the Avalanche were at 92 percent against Nashville and 85 percent against St. Louis.
A 75-percent shot is far from a guarantee. Colorado is heavily favored for a reason, but the Oilers have a path to victory too. They just took down an elite Calgary team as an underdog, with relative ease, and have the best player in the world playing out of his mind right now. The odds may be lopsided in one direction, but that only suggests there’s more confidence in the team Colorado has built compared to Edmonton’s. This won’t be a cakewalk by any means.
Colorado’s dominant regular season is a primary reason why they’re such heavy favorites, with top-10 rankings across most metrics. But in this league, especially once the playoffs start, the question is “what have you done lately?”
In the postseason so far, the Avalanche have kicked it up a notch in quite a few areas. They’ve increased their shot volume, but haven’t seen as much improvement in their expected goal generation thanks to the Blues limiting some quality shots. But Colorado’s done an even better job of limiting shots and scoring chances against, although their opponents once again are a factor here between St. Louis and, even more so, Nashville.
While Colorado saw a team who had scoring depth in the Blues last round, they’re now going up against a team with a lot of firepower at the top of their lineup. The Oilers’ second half of the regular season was stronger than their start, thanks to adjustments from their new coaching staff. Through two playoff rounds, even against two teams with defensive strengths, Edmonton’s managed to increase their shot and expected goal generation from the regular season, and have a better goals rate to show for it. So the Avalanche should expect a tougher workload for their defense and goaltending that’s slipped from the regular season.
The drawback for the Oilers is play back in their own end. Edmonton tweaked their approach in the neutral and defensive zones to improve how they supported their goaltenders, but have conceded more shots and quality looks since, consequently knocking their expected goal rate against. Now the challenge is staying as tight as possible against one of the best offensive forces in the league.
Colorado’s stellar offense extends to the power play, which has been outstanding in the playoffs. Edmonton’s no pushover on the advantage, either. The penalty kill is where things are a bit different.
The Avalanche are better at limiting their opponents from creating quality looks — but goaltending hasn’t backed it up. The Oilers have had the goaltending while short-handed, but they’ve kept Mike Smith busy without as much support on the penalty kill.
The roster breakdown obviously starts right at the top with the main attraction of this series: McDavid versus MacKinnon. Two exhilaratingly electric superstars at the top of their games, both of whom have shown an innate ability to thrive come playoff time. It’s going to be a thrill to watch the two go head to head, hopefully trading end-to-end highlight-reel rushes.
The big question here is whether MacKinnon can match what McDavid brings to the table, especially what he’s currently bringing to the table. McDavid has been otherworldly in these playoffs, putting on the best playoff performance we’ve seen in a very long time. It was enough to warrant the deep dive treatment with his playoff win pace being utterly ridiculous. He’s projected to be a six-win player, an extremely high amount for hockey, but in the playoffs has been close to double that, currently sitting at a 10.9-win pace. Colorado’s entire top line, as currently constructed, is at 10.2 wins total.
McDavid has 26 points in 12 games and has dragged an Oilers team into the third round almost on his own. The gap between Colorado’s forwards and Edmonton’s forwards is 4.7 wins — close to the exact amount McDavid is playing above expectations right now. Stopping him means stopping Edmonton, but in this postseason, that’s been easier said than done.
McDavid is doing it all right now with the Oilers scoring three quarters of the goals whenever he’s on the ice, with his offense, in particular, preposterously high. At five-on-five the Oilers have scored 7.33 goals per 60 with McDavid on the ice, an astounding number that’s led to his ridiculous point totals in these playoffs.
MacKinnon has been excellent in his own right, but not nearly to this level. He’s shown flashes of it, namely Game 5 against St. Louis, but not to the consistent degree McDavid has. That’s an extremely high bar and while the Avalanche don’t need MacKinnon to match McDavid to win, they do need him to at least come close. One player shouldn’t be able to dictate a series, but this version of McDavid can. If McDavid can continue on his torrid path the Avalanche are in trouble — and that means MacKinnon has to be up to the task.
He’s projected to be a five-win player, but in these playoffs has stepped up his game to play at a 6.7-win pace. That’s incredibly strong and the highest of any remaining forward, but still well behind McDavid. That’s to be expected with half as many points, but MacKinnon has room to be even better and at least come close to McDavid’s level. He’s shown that in each of the past two playoff runs and there’s room for him to dominate here. At five-on-five his expected and actual goal percentages are identical to McDavid’s — it’s just at a much slower pace with fewer goals in either direction. Slowing McDavid down will be a crucial part of this matchup and that likely falls on MacKinnon.
For what it’s worth, in 40 minutes head-to-head over the last three seasons, MacKinnon has outscored McDavid 2-1 and has earned 60 percent of the expected goals. But he’s also never faced this version of McDavid. It should be a treat to watch.
Those two aren’t the only stars in this series, there’s also the undercard featuring two incredible sidekicks: Draisaitl for the Oilers, and Rantanen for the Avalanche. Sidekick feels harsh for two players who would be the best players on a majority of teams, but it’s unfortunately apt here given the shadows the two players live under.
Draisaitl’s performance in these playoffs has been extremely special in its own right. Despite having ankle issues that have limited his mobility (and ability to anchor his own line), he’s found a way to dominate anyway thanks to his tremendous playmaking ability. He’s tied with McDavid for the postseason lead in points with 26 of his own, 17 of which came in five games against Calgary. It’s worth noting that 11 of Draisaitl’s 19 assists are secondary — this is still the McDavid show, after all — but that doesn’t take away from how vital he’s been to the top line’s attack. Defensively, the issues are still there (his relative defensive numbers are quite dire) with the ankle issues only exacerbating it, but Draisaitl brings more than enough offensively to mitigate that.
There is the question of putting all your eggs in one basket, especially with Colorado opting for two high-powered lines. One is led by MacKinnon and the other by Rantanen, who finds himself on the second line to start the series. Separating the dynamic duo wasn’t a common occurrence this season, but the two did get ample playing time apart where Rantanen actually thrived. In 387 minutes away from MacKinnon this season, Rantanen had 63 percent of the expected goals and outscored opponents 31-15. That’s a nice potential luxury to have on the second line and surprisingly those numbers were actually stronger than his numbers with MacKinnon.
That’s partially why the two have equal projected values, but Rantanen has struggled to match that projected output in these playoffs. Relative to his teammates, his impact on actual and expected goals has been negative, his 11 points in 10 games is lower than his usual point pace, and he has just a single goal. He needs to step it up, and a secondary role might help with that — especially if Edmonton stacks the top line.
Colorado is afforded that kind of luxury because the Avalanche have more than enough star power elsewhere to go around. Landeskog has been a monster in these playoffs, Nazem Kadri has broken out as a superstar center in his own right, and Valeri Nichuhskin has emerged as an elite power forward. That gives Colorado loads of options for mixing and matching in the top six.
Nichushkin’s excellent season has been a key in giving the Avalanche so much versatility in the top six. He had the results to match his strong play below the surface, earning a career-high 52 points in 62 regular-season games before tacking on another seven points in 10 games this postseason. So far in the playoffs, he’s near the top of the team with a 63.8 percent expected goals rate at five-on-five. Much of that has to do with what he creates off his stick, with the quality of his shots equating to 1.1 individual expected goals per 60 to lead the team.
His emergence is what led the Avalanche to move Landeskog to the second line to open the playoffs, giving more top-six balance. With the captain has been deadline addition Artturi Lehkonen, ensuring there’s a two-way disruptor in each top-six combination who can help facilitate his teammates’ play. But now with MacKinnon, this line, in their almost 40 minutes of play, has generated upwards of 66 percent of the shot and expected goals share.
Landeskog’s regular season was cut short, but he was scoring at a 95-point pace and has picked up where he left off in the playoffs with 11 points in 10 games, playing at a 6.4 win pace which exceeds his projection of 3.9 by quite a bit. That’s impressive, especially since he’s not the No. 1 threat up front — he’s expected to be closer to the No. 3 behind MacKinnon and Rantanen.
Kadri’s been the focus for the wrong reasons after colliding with Jordan Binnington, which consequently ended his season and obviously doesn’t sit well considering his reputation of crossing the line in the playoffs. The situation took on a life of its own because of everything off the ice, and the narrative of course becomes that he’s playing through adversity — adversity that he shouldn’t even have to face.
The reality of it all is that Kadri has been a standout thanks to his level of play in the postseason — including a Game 4 hat trick. With almost 20 shot attempts coming off his stick per 60 minutes of play, he’s behind only MacKinnon in Colorado shot generation at five-on-five. And he’s converting with 1.59 goals per 60 in those situations to lead the team. That’s contributed to him exceeding his projected value as well so far this postseason, and adds to that edge in star power the Avalanche have. That new-look second line with Lehkonen and Rantanen adds up to 9.9 projected wins, which exceeds the Oilers’ second trio’s 5.4 projected win value.
Though Colorado has stronger immediate support for its star duo, Edmonton has some strong players of its own that have really brought the heat in these playoffs. Two of them were additions made this season to bolster the forward ranks and the moves have paid massive dividends so far. It’s not McDavid or Draisaitl who leads the Oilers in playoff goals, it’s Evander Kane with 12 and Zach Hyman’s eight at the top. The two power forwards have scored big goal after big goal during this postseason, and though much of it is due to proximity to the stars, it’s still a big boost that the pucks are actually going in. Kane riding shotgun with McDavid has been massive for both players as the two have found terrific chemistry together. Scoring a goal per game is no small feat. Add the five-on-five dynamic and Kane is playing at a six-win rate — well above his projected value. Hyman, with 12 points in 12 games, has been playing at a four-win rate. The two have been elite.
There’s also Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centering the second line and he had some big games against the Flames. His production has been off the charts so far with 11 points in 12 games, but the big question is whether he can handle a shutdown role against Colorado’s high-flying second line. Nugent-Hopkins has a 48 percent expected goals rate in these playoffs. Putting Jesse Puljujarvi on the right side should help with that. He may not produce much, but he can drive play with the best of them and has a 57 percent expected goals rate in the playoffs. He’s had some bad goaltending luck go against him.
On both sides, most of the damage will come from the top six as the bottom-six talent is pretty nondescript. Andre Burakovsky, who is projected to be the most valuable part of Colorado’s third and fourth lines, was a healthy scratch for two games last round. While he’s projected to be worth 2.2 wins, he’s actually been closer to 0.5. So the Avalanche can only hope he bounces back after returning to the lineup for the series decider, where he earned an assist, to give them more secondary scoring.
The player to really step up in Game 6 was actually J.T. Compher. But there’s really only so much the Avalanche have gotten out of their third line. They tend to win the shot battle, but fall short when it comes to quality — not creating as much and conceding even more than that. Together they’re projected to be worth more than double the Oilers’ third line, but the results haven’t always matched.
The fourth line for the Avalanche generates very little offense, making the Darren Helm series-clinching goal all the more surprising in Game 6. But in the little time they’re deployed for, they haven’t given up much of anything in the postseason so far.
As for Edmonton, Kailer Yamamoto has been excellent so far in these playoffs, but much of that has come in minutes with McDavid. Stepping up to lead his own line would go a long way. That’s not all on him though as both Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele have room to improve.
Colorado has the firepower edge up front, though the way McDavid, Draisaitl, Kane and Hyman are filling the net obviously tightens the gap. The same is true in net, where the edge should lie with Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper — but that’s not how the playoffs have played out so far.
Kuemper exceeded expectations after a slow start in Colorado, ending the regular season with a .920 save percentage and 15.8 goals saved above expected which ranked sixth in the league.
While he wasn’t tested too much in Round 1, he still gave his team a chance to win with at least average play in Games 1 and 2. But an eye injury in Game 3 ended his series. Kuemper returned for Round 2, but fell below expectations every single game, conceding 6.1 more goals than expected throughout the series. Maybe the Avalanche can get past Edmonton if their offense is that stellar and consistently ends up in the back of their net. But the Oilers’ best can respond to that and will force Colorado’s goalie, which is why they need him closer to regular-season form and closer to that expected value of 4.2 projected wins that should be the best in the Western Conference final. It’s possible the eye injury is affecting him more than the team is letting on.
Mike Smith, on the other hand, has thrived amid the postseason chaos because he is chaos personified. He’s had some stinkers in terms of both games and goals allowed, but he’s beyond resilient, putting up some excellent overall numbers in these playoffs. Game 1 of Round 1 and Round 2 looked like they might be his demise, but he bounced back accordingly to be exactly what the Oilers needed to win. Even with a high-scoring series against the Flames, Smith still has a .927 save percentage in these playoffs while saving 7.7 goals above expected — over half a goal per game.
He’s been on fire with a hot streak that started a month before the playoffs. From about April onward, Smith has legitimately been one of the best goalies in the league, even if he rarely gets respect for it. His projected GSVA is pretty high for a reason and on the whole, he can be trusted to be the answer between the pipes — it’s just that the answer always feels so unorthodox in the process. In the span of one game, the best and worst of Smith can both be present, but the overall package isn’t nearly as bad as what it’s made out to be. It’s actually quite good — though Colorado will be Smith’s toughest challenge yet. To help bring Edmonton to the Final, he’ll need to be at his absolute best.
Then there’s the defense, where the difference is definitively in Colorado’s favor — albeit in a top-heavy fashion.
Makar was the best all-around defenseman in the league in the regular season, when he collected 86 points in 77 games. He leads all defenders with a projected value of 4.9 wins, which equals the entire Oilers’ starting six on the blue line. To open the playoffs, he only built on that elite puck movement and showed what a commanding force he could be for his team when the pressure rose. So his actual value has jumped even higher, to a GSVA of 8.7 which is second only to McDavid among skaters in the playoffs.
There’s a reason some have wondered if the real title fight here is actually McDavid versus Makar, as the latter has ascended to that realm of recognition. This year he’s entrenched himself as one of the very best players on the planet, period. He’s a force at both ends of the ice, with or without the puck.
What elevates his game even more is an elite partner on his left in Devon Toews. He’s projected to be worth 3.5 wins, which is also better than anyone on defense in Edmonton or that top pair combined. Together, Toews and Makar have a 60 percent expected goals rate, and the results to match — which is only made more impressive by the fact that this duo tends to face off against top competition. They’ll have their hands full on that front in this series, but their speed and puck-moving ability should be up to the task.
Considering the injury to Samuel Girard, which weakens the bottom four, there’s even more pressure for this pair to perform. There was some concern about how Girard, who is small in stature, would handle the playoffs after wilting in seasons past. That’s why the addition of Josh Manson, who defends the blue line well and limits scoring chances while bringing a physical punch, was an effective match for him.
Now, it’s Jack Johnson in his place. So the pairing went from having a projected value of 1.1 wins to -0.7 collectively.
Johnson’s long been one of the worst defenders at the NHL level. While Colorado’s strength and systems have helped mitigate the damage, he’s already been exposed since making his playoff debut. His presence is troublesome since it’s not just his play that could be negative moving forward — Manson’s was balanced out well with smooth-skating Girard.
The other pairing, however, of Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson, does have potential. Byram stylistically matches up more to Girard than his actual replacement, Jack Johnson, does. And this pairing has maintained strong results — a 63.5 percent expected goals rate with the team outscoring their opponents 7-3. Byram is having a breakout postseason, but he’s also still very raw with just 49 career games under his belt. The former top-five pick did well handling the Predators and Blues, but things get much more challenging here as he’ll likely get a healthy dose of Edmonton’s top line. With McDavid playing so much, it’s hard to match up against him. Will Byram be up for the challenge?
On the other side, Edmonton doesn’t have an elite high-end defenceman which is one of the biggest things separating the two teams. There isn’t anyone available who can handle one elite line, let alone the two that Colorado can throw out there.
Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci can try, and it helps being mostly on with McDavid to get there. It’s a fight-fire-with-fire scenario that should work well enough against Colorado’s best … as long as Edmonton’s best is also on the ice. Nurse has a 54 percent expected goals rate in these playoffs which is among the best marks on the team, but the McDavid factor has to be considered with everyone. They have a 61 percent expected goals rate together, which is excellent, but Nurse is at 43 percent without McDavid, which is not. Ceci has been a stabilizing force on that pair, but at the end of the day, it’s McDavid’s presence that matters most.
This is an issue that affects every Oilers defender across the board, which is why all six being above 50 percent expected goals in the playoffs needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All six are below 50 percent without McDavid.
Interestingly, it’s the second pair of Duncan Keith and Evan Bouchard that seem to hold their own most without the captain’s help. Their expected goals rate only falls to 49 percent without him, which is close enough to break even to be a win. The duo has had some really rough moments that have ended up in the back of the net, leading to a team-low goals percentage of 43 percent, but there’s an element of luck involved there over just 12 games. It’s not all luck though, and Keith’s inability to defend off the rush could be especially problematic against a very fast Colorado team. If asked to take on top-six matchups, there’s a good chance the duo could struggle.
On the third pair, Brett Kulak has been a revelation for the Oilers and leads the team’s defense with a 56 percent expected goals rate. He’s been a stabilizing presence next to Tyson Barrie, but it’s important to remember the context behind his minutes. Kulak too falls below 50 percent without McDavid, and that’s with cushy matchups, too. It’d be interesting to see him climb into the top four if a defensive boost is needed — but the risk of having Keith and Barrie on the ice at the same time likely doesn’t allow for that.
The Bottom Line
This is going to be an exhilarating series, one that will likely be dictated by which stars shine the brightest.
That should be Colorado, due mostly to the team’s incredible collection of star talent. It’s an overwhelming group that would likely be too much for any team to handle and it’s why the Avalanche have been such heavy Stanley Cup favorites from the start.
But underestimate the Oilers at your own peril. Quality can beat quantity and the way McDavid is playing right now might just be enough to overcome Colorado’s wealth of skill. Add Draisaitl to that, plus the supercharged play of Kane and Hyman, and Edmonton is starting to look pretty rich with skill itself.
The Avalanche are favored for a reason, but this won’t be an easy fight. The Oilers are peaking at the right time, led by one of the best playoff performances of all time. That’s going to be very tough to stop.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards, Sportlogiq and NHL
(Top photo of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)
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