DENVER (AP) — The headline act for the Western Conference final: Connor McDavid against Nathan MacKinnon.
The show is about to get real good.
This is a series sure to generate lots of end-to-end, fast-paced, goal-scoring entertainment as McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers meet MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche starting Tuesday night in Game 1.
Led by two of the top players in hockey, the Oilers and Avalanche are the two highest scoring teams in the playoffs, both averaging more than four goals per game.
“I’m sure it’s the dream matchup that the league wanted in the West for sure,” Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson said Sunday of the MacKinnon versus McDavid storyline. “Two of the best players in the league going at it. Two of the fastest players. Two of the most highly skilled guys that you can really pick out of the league. I think it’s great for hockey. I think it’s great for fans. I think it’s great for both teams.”
The Oilers have scouted the Avalanche and come to the same conclusion: They’re a lot like them — fast and skilled.
“It’s going to be an exciting matchup and I think it will be great for the fans to watch,” said Edmonton defenseman Tyson Barrie, who was drafted by Colorado in 2009 and dealt to Toronto in ‘19 as part of the deal that brought Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche. “We’ll have to slow them down at some points.”
But how? How does a team slow down MacKinnon or McDavid?
For Johnson, that’s where facing the likes of MacKinnon each practice comes in handy. He’s seen the speed and the moves. He has a sense of what it’s going to be like with McDavid.
“Sometimes, we take a lot of line rushes against Nate in practice and it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa. So this is what it feels like,’” Johnson said. “It’s a handful. It definitely does help when you go against the best (in practice). It sometimes makes it a little bit easier in games.”
The headliners may be McDavid and MacKinnon, but each team features plenty of game breakers.
For the Oilers, there’s Leon Draisaitl for the Oilers, the 2019-20 Hart winner. He has same stat line during this postseason as McDavid — seven goals, 19 assists for 26 points, which leads the league.
“Everybody’s got to bring it. Everybody,” Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews said of defending Draisaitl and McDavid. “We need everyone to defend against guys like that.”
Colorado boasts a balanced scoring attack as MacKinnon leads the way with eight goals, including a hat trick in Game 5 against St. Louis in the second round. But there’s also defenseman Cale Makar (three goals, 10 assists) along with captain Gabriel Landeskog (six goals, five goals) and Kadri (five goals, including a hat trick in Game 4 in St. Louis). The Avalanche are averaging 4.3 goals per game even with their leading scorer from the regular season, Mikko Rantanen, only scoring on an empty-netter so far (he does have 10 assists).
“Our team’s playing well,” Toews said. “It’s going to take a group effort of everybody pulling the same rope (against Edmonton).”
In the regular season, the Avalanche won two of three with one victory in overtime and another during a shootout. In the shootout, McDavid was thwarted by Darcy Kuemper, while MacKinnon scored on Mikko Koskinen for what would prove to be the winner.
Kuemper will have his hands full with the Oilers after stopping 197 of 218 shots so far in the postseason ( he was hurt in Game 3 in Nashville after a stick went through his mask and caught him near the eye. He returned for the Blues series). Edmonton has been relying on Mike Smith, the 40-year-old goaltender who’s 8-3 with a 2.70 goals-against average so far in these playoffs.
“We’ve had great belief in our group for a long time,” said McDavid, a two-time Hart winner. “Here we are in the final four. We still have lots of hockey left to go and going against a real good Colorado hockey team, that’s going to require our best effort.”
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