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They say all politics is local. Maybe they should say the same about hockey fandom. Once a team is eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, their supporters tend to lose interest in the rest of the tournament. Very few clubs attract a truly national following and there is too much bad blood between many Canadian teams for their fans to endure cheering for one another.
Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers might be an exception to this kind of provincialism. Among the 25-year-old superstar’s many talents is his ability to attract the attention of not just hockey fans, but anyone with the slightest interest in the sport. His electrifying performance in the hilarious Battle of Alberta, where he scored the series winner in OT, stole the hearts (and eyeballs) of hockey fans across Canada. It even helped the NHL (albeit briefly) capture their white whale — the elusive Casual American fan.
Now McDavid and the Oilers face another crowd-friendly duel against Colorado in the Western Conference Finals. The Avalanche are a hugely entertaining team, having scored the third-most goals in the league this season and boasting two of the best (and most exciting) players in the game.
Here are some things you should know for the series, which begins Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET in Denver and is being broadcast live on the CBC TV network, the CBC Sports app and CBCSports.ca:
McDavid is going crazy. I probably don’t have to tell you that. But here are a few stats to put his brilliance in perspective in these playoffs. With 26 points in just 12 games, McDavid is more than half of Wayne Gretzky’s record 47 points in a single playoff year. That was established in 1985 when it took the Great One’s Oilers just 18 games to win the cup. If McDavid’s team can upset Colorado in his first appearance in the Conference Finals, he could have up to 14 games from now, so the record is definitely within reach. Another mind-blowing McDavid fact: When he’s on the ice, Edmonton is beating his opponents in these playoffs 25-9 in 5-on-5 play. With him on the bench, the Oilers are edged 18-10. Every time McDavid gets out of there, he tips the ice in Edmonton’s favor in visible and invisible ways. We’ll witness one of the greatest performances in playoff hockey history.
CLOCK | McDavid sends Oilers to Western Conference Finals:
Two Oilers might actually break Gretzky’s record. For all the (very deserved) talk about McDavid’s greatness, Leon Draisaitl has netted exactly the same number of goals (seven) and assists (19) in these playoffs to take the lead with his better-known teammate on 26 points. New York Rangers’ Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad are a (very) distant third at 16. Even more impressive is that Draisaitl, who won the 2019-20 regular-season scoring title and MVP awards, does all a bad ankle. McDavid is still the better player, especially when you factor in defensive contributions (or lack thereof in the case of Draisaitl), but the German’s brave efforts were vital to Edmonton’s success. Another Oilers salute, Evander Kane leads the playoffs with 12 goals (three more than anyone else) while reaping the benefits of skating alongside two elite playmakers.
The Avalanche have their own pair of Superstars. Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar have just half as many points as McDavid and Draisaitl in the playoffs (they lead Colorado with “only” 13 points in 10 games combined). But like the Oilers’ dynamic duo, both are capable of taking over a game at any moment with their dazzling skills. Makar, 23, was second in last year’s Norris Trophy and appears poised to win several of those after leading all defenders with 28 goals this season. The 26-year-old MacKinnon has been a Hart Trophy finalist for the past two years and has remained MVP-caliber this season with 32 goals and 88 points in just 65 games. Both MacKinnon and Makar are scintillating skaters whose incredible athleticism can lead to peaks like this one.
Colorado has the stronger supporting cast. The big problem for the Oilers has always been that they surround two of the NHL’s best players with backup-level talent. That’s still an issue to some extent, but Edmonton GM Ken Holland hung out with ex-Toronto forward Zach Hyman (27 regular-season goals, eight more in the playoffs) and his mid-season gamble last summer Making a strong addition to the ailing Kane clearly paid off. Mercurial goalie Mike Smith is always an adventure, but he’s played pretty well and has one of the better save rates of this playoff. Colorado GM Joe Sakic has done a much better job of building a balanced roster. Tall and talented Mikko Rantanen (92 regular-season points) is a great No. 2 forward alongside MacKinnon despite scoring just one goal in this year’s playoffs. There’s also captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has 11 points in 10 games since returning from injury to start the postseason, and Nazem Kadri, who has had an 87-point regular season and is averaging one point per game in the playoffs.
bottom line: If mediocre goalie Darcy Kuemper can keep up and MacKinnon can hold McDavid to a draw, Colorado’s depth should give them an advantage over the Oilers. There’s a reason the gambling markets give the Avs a 2-in-3 chance to win this series and let them win the cup. But ask yourself: Do you really want to bet against Connor McDavid now?