Every year when the NHL playoffs begin, fans and media personalities love to look ahead at the potential high profile matchups. Whether it is a Cinderella run or a minor upset, the playoffs rarely go according to plan, however, this year’s Western Conference Finals will ice some of the biggest names in the game today. McDavid, MacKinnon, Draisaitl and Makar will share the spotlight starting tonight as the Oilers visit the Avalanche for Game 1 with a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals on the line.
Starting with the top seeded team in the Western Conference, the Avalanche have been the favourite in the West from start to finish. They have one of the deepest lineups and can be considered one of the best teams that we have seen in recent years. They are led by top end, game-breaking talent that is complimented with talented depth that every team and their fans covet. The Avalanche can easily go player for player with any team in this league, however, the biggest hurdle they faced this season was exercising their demons in the Second Round to finally reach the Conference Finals.
For the Oilers, the team entered the 2021-22 season with the same outside noise they had been dealing with for a few years now. Was the team and GM Ken Holland wasting the prime years of McDavid and Draisaitl? The Oilers ice easily the best 1-2 punch in the NHL, but the team continually fell short of expectations year after year. That is until now. McDavid has been super human this post-season, at times single-handedly willing his team to victory. Not to be outdone, Draisaitl has quietly put together one of the most productive post-seasons ever seen; on one leg no less! Both players lead the NHL in Playoff points with 26 (7 goals and 19 assists) a piece, 7 points clear of the Mika Zibanejad (with 2 games in hand) who sits third.
Narratives and predictions aside, this series will feature an elite level of talent that all NHL fans can appreciate. Starting at the top, McDavid and MacKinnon both have a rare ability to generate scoring chances off the rush and should bring the best out of each other. McDavid has generated a mind boggling 49 zone entries leading to scoring chances which is miles ahead of the rest of the NHL (Kucherov is second with 27). For context, this stat measures the amount of High Danger Scoring Chances (shots from the slot) created by a player who enters the offensive zone with the puck.
Draisaitl can easily be placed in the same category as these two, and while the Avalanche may not have a single player who can match Draisiatl’s talent level, their depth of talent drastically out matches Edmonton’s. This is not a criticism of the Oilers as much as it is an indication of how deep and talented the Avalanche’s forward group is. Draisaitl, Kane, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins are all having great post-seasons, but the Avalanche are able to counter with Landeskog, Rantanen and Kadri. The difference between these teams are the Avs’ complimentary players in former Hab, Artturi Lehkonen, Valri Nichushkin and Andrei Burakovsky who allow the Avalanche to balance their scoring attack, where as the Oilers tend to shorten their bench to mix and match their top 5 forwards to generate offense.
On the back end, the Avalanche have a clear advantage with their loaded defensive corps led by one of the best offensive defenseman in the league in Cale Makar. The Avs also boast the second and would be third best defensemen in Devon Toews and the injured Samuel Girard. The loss of Girard in this series is a shame, but the team has enough depth to overcome the injury. On the other blue line, the Oilers have relied on a success by committee approach and have benefitted from the leadership of Duncan Keith. While he may not be producing like he did with the Blackhawks during their Stanley Cup runs in the early 2010s, Keith has been a positive and calming influence on the team. Bouchard has provided some scoring support from the back end, but the play of another former Hab, Brett Kulak has been a major boost for the Oilers. He has helped balance the pairings and has quietly put together a solid defensive performance thus far.
Moving to the crease, Kuemper should be the clear favourite but it’s hard to give him the decisive edge based on each goalie’s respective performance to this point. Mike Smith by no means has been good, but he has battled through adversity and a couple of questionable goals against, to give his team a chance to win every night. While on the surface most fans would probably take Kuemper over Smith, the analytics tell a different story. Smith has been far superior in virtually every advanced metric including all Above Expected (Ax) stats, including a massive edge in the High Danger Scoring Chances Save Percentage Above Expected (HDSC SV% Ax)
KEYS TO VICTORY – AVALANCHE
The obvious top priority for the Avalanche will be to shut down the Oilers two-headed scoring monster. McDavid and Draisaitl have played exceptional hockey together and shutting down this line will go a long way in pushing the Avs to victory. This is much easier said than done, they will need to do what the likes of Kopitar, Danault, Lindholm and Backlund all failed to do. The Avalanche do not have a single defensive/two-way centre of this quality who can be relied upon for this assignment, but they could shut them down through team defence. I believe Devon Toews and either of the Johnsons or Manson will likely get tagged with this assignment, mainly to keep Makar free to create and drive offence without having to worry about shutting down the top two scorers in the playoffs and forcing the Oilers to game plan for him, rather than vice-versa.
Going beyond McDavid and Draisaitl, the Avalanche will need to limit shots from the slot in general. If you need to, feel free to take a second look at Kuemper’s High Danger Scoring Chance (aka Slot shots) Save Percentage; enough said. Not to mention the Oilers have been one of the best teams at driving offence through the slot with Hyman leading the league in inner slot shots, followed by McDavid sitting third and Kane fourth.
Finally, the last key is to get to Mike Smith early and often, every single game. The book is out and Smith is susceptible to giving up soft goals which can derail his, and the teams confidence. That is until McDavid and Draisaitl get them back in the game, but if the Avalanche can continuously pepper Smith with quality shots, they will eventually score in bunches.
KEYS TO VICTORY – OILERS
The formula for the Oilers is simple, follow McDavid and Draisaitl into battle. They are the motor that drives the team, and whoever the third piece on that line is at any given moment will absolutely need to make the most of their opportunities. To this point they have, but neither of their previous two opponents are the Avalanche. The Oilers top six forwards have played incredible hockey, but they will need their depth forwards to come up big. The Avs relentlessly come at you with all four lines and the Oilers will need to match them punch for punch to have a chance in what should be a high scoring and exciting series.
Secondly, the Oilers will need to limit their penalties and play at even strength as much as possible. The Avalanche have the top Power Play in the Playoffs thus far, clicking 34.5% and their PP1 line might be the only 5-man unit that can outscore their own top unit. Additionally, the Oilers first line sit 1-2-3 in 5v5 scoring with three more players (Hyman, Nuge and Ceci) tied for 10th (according to Naturalstattrick.com).
Lastly, just as it will be key for the Avs to get to Smith early and often, the Oilers will need to put fourth their best defensive effort yet in front of him. Despite struggles with consistency over the last couple of years, Smith does have past history of excellent play and has been here before with the Coyotes. Albeit that was quite some time ago, Smith lives and dies with his confidence in the crease and if he can build that confidence early, the Oilers could surprise people on their way to reaching the Stanley Cup.
VERDICT – AVALANCHE IN 5
This series should be a wildly offensive and high octane affair with some of the leagues best players going toe-to-toe. This is a dream matchup for the NHL in terms of marketing the league’s star power. However, I do not see this series lasting very long as I expect the Avalanche to take this series in 5. McDavid, Draisaitl and co will not go down quietly and will likely score in bunches as they normally do, but when the dust settles it simply will not be enough. The Oilers should (and most likely will) be competitive and in every single game, the Avalanche just have that extra gear and they will score one more goal than the Oilers every night.