When the 2021-22 NHL season began there was an expectation that the Colorado Avalanche would be in this spot.
They have had one of the league’s best rosters for more than four years now and have been on the verge of breaking through on a deep playoff run for the past three years before fizzling out in the Second Round. Given their talent level the hope was that it was only a matter of time until they got through.
Thanks to their dramatic Game 6 win against the St. Louis Blues in the Second Round, they did exactly that.
The Edmonton Oilers, on the other hand, are a little bit of a different story.
They should have been expected to be here. They are seven years into the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era, but thanks to mismanagement that has resulted in a staggering lack of depth and other major shortcomings on the roster they consistently fell short of the playoffs despite having two of the league’s best offensive megastars. On the occasion they did get in the playoffs, they always went away quietly without much of a fight.
That has changed this season.
Their season began to turnaround following the mid-season coaching change that saw Jay Woodcroft replace Dave Tippett, and they have been a better team ever since. That change, combined with Vegas, the heavy favorite in the Pacific Division, missing the playoffs and it gave the Oilers a very manageable path through the first two rounds. They have taken advantage of it and are now just four wins away from their first Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season.
Game 1 – May 31: Oilers at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (TNT, SN, CBC, TVAS) Game 2 – June 2: Oilers at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (TNT, SN, CBC, TVAS) Game 3 – June 4: Avalanche at Oilers, 8 p.m. ET (TNT, SN, CBC, TVAS) Game 4 – June 6: Avalanche at Oilers, 8 p.m. ET (TNT, SN, CBC, TVAS) *Game 5 – June 8: Oilers at Avalanche, TBD *Game 6 – June 10: Avalanche at Oilers, TBD *Game 7 – June 12: Oilers at Avalanche, TBD
* If necessary
The Oilers have the two best offensive players in the league in McDavid and Draisaitl, and what they are doing this postseason is absolutely amazing. They enter the Conference Final series with 26 points each in the Oilers’ 12 games and are pretty much carrying the Edmonton offense, just as they have done from the day they arrived in Edmonton. They have somehow even taken their play and production to yet another level in this postseason.
But for as good as those two players are, and for as productive as players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, and Zach Hyman have been, the Oilers still do not quite have the overall scoring depth of Colorado.
The Avalanche have their own dominant superstars at the top of the roster (Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog), but also a fantastic supporting cast with Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen, and an extremely talented defense that can also provide offense.
McDavid and Draisaitl make this close, but the Avalanche have the superstars and the depth to get the slight edge.
This is where Colorado starts to really distance itself in this matchup. And against most teams. While their big-three forwards and forward depth gets most of the attention, it is Colorado’s defense that really makes it a top-tier team. Cale Makar is one of the league’s best players and might already be the best player on the team (even ahead of MacKinnon), while Devon Toews is one of the best defenseman in transition in the league. Samuel Girard’s injury is significant, but the Avalanche have another blossoming star in Bowen Byram making his presence felt. That does not even get into players like Erik Johnson and Josh Manson who might not be superstars, but are still very good players. On paper this is the best defensive unit in the league, even with Girard sidelined.
The Oilers, on the other hand, are simply not one of the better defensive teams in the league. They give up a lot of chances and do not really have anybody on their blue line that matches up with Makar or Toews. Improved goaltending has helped bail them out at times in the playoffs
This is a tough one to give anybody an edge in. Darcy Kuemper had a great regular season, but Avalanche goalies get more support and get insulated better than any other goaltenders in the league given the offensive support they get and the defense they get to play behind. Just look at what Phillip Grubauer did in Denver before going to Seattle this season. Nearly identical numbers to Kuemper with the Avalanche. On top of that, Kuemper has not been great this postseason. He has not had to really steal any games for Colorado and it remains to be seen what will happen when he (or if) he has to steal one. Their main expectation for him is “do not lose the game” as opposed to “go win the game.”
The Oilers situation is even more fascinating.
Their goaltending position was a mess for most of the 2021-22 regular season and seemingly a massive Achilles Heel. Mike Smith struggled for most of the season, but started to really turn a corner down the stretch run of the regular season. He finished on a high note and has continued that through the playoffs where he has been one of the biggest surprises in the league.
Sometimes it is all about which goalie has the hot hand.
That goalie right now has been Smith.
The only concern for the Oilers is whether or not his past couple of games, where he has given up seven goals in his past two starts including a brutal goal from the opposite blue line, is just a little blip on the radar or the start of a regression.
These teams are very similar here. Both have excellent power play units that can be lethal if given too many chances, while their penalty kills have similar success rates during the regular season and playoffs. If things stay at 5-on-5 in this series Colorado has the definite advantage, but Edmonton’s best chance for success might be if it can get this series into a battle of power plays. That will be the great equalizer in this series.
Edmonton has exceeded expectations since the coaching change mid-season and has taken advantage of a favorable path through the Pacific Division playoff bracket. But this is by far the best competition the Oilers are going to face this postseason. Colorado has the edge in two major categories and the best you can say for the Oilers is that they are even in the other two. That could be a tough gap to overcome. McDavid and Draisaitl are going to be able to carry the Oilers to a win or two, but the Avalanche have the better overall team and they get to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final in six games.