This is the Western Conference Final matchup that many wanted to see. Round 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is set to begin as two of the best players in the world will go head-to-head. Neither Connor McDavid nor Nathan MacKinnon has made it this far in the postseason in their careers, so the stage is even larger for their first playoff matchup.
The Edmonton Oilers’ and Colorado Avalanche’s best players have led their team to this point, giving their franchise their first Conference Finals appearance in over 15 years. Oilers general manager Ken Holland discussed the matchup in an NHL.com interview. Here’s an in-depth breakdown of some of the key comments about the stars and what to expect in this series.
McDavid & MacKinnon Have Game-Breaking Talent
Holland spoke about McDavid and MacKinnon and said, “I think they’re two of the best players, if not the two best, of their era.” That isn’t a bold statement, as both players very much deserve to be brought up in the conversation. McDavid has the most points in the NHL by far since 2017-18 with 549. He’s scored 193 goals, 356 assists, and 177 power-play points in 360 games over that span. MacKinnon isn’t far behind, with 167 goals and 442 points in 338 games to rank third in the NHL in that time.
MacKinnon has a little more playoff experience than McDavid and many of the Oilers. Regardless of that, you could argue that McDavid has as much prestige as MacKinnon already from his stellar playoff performance this season.
MacKinnon has the third-highest points-per-game average of all-time among players who have played at least 40 games in the postseason, at 1.37 points per game, behind only Wayne Gretzky (1.84) and Mario Lemieux (1.61). In MacKinnon’s nine NHL seasons, he’s appeared in the playoffs six times, posting at least a point per game in each of them; 25 points in 15 games in 2019-20 is the highlight. He’s also scored 25 goals in his last 35 postseason over three seasons, putting at least eight in the back of the net in each (from “Nathan MacKinnon, evolved: Avalanche star showing his maturity, embracing playoff journey,” The Athletic, 5/29/22).
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McDavid has taken over almost every game during the Oilers’ run this season. He has seven goals, 26 points, a plus-19 rating, and 39 hits, averaging well over 22 minutes of ice time per game in 12 games. He has recorded multiple points in 10 of his 12 games and scored in five consecutive games split between Rounds 1 and 2. His playoff pedigree is rising by the second, with 18 goals and 48 points in 33 career playoff games, good for a 1.45 points-per-game average.
He had a rough start to his playoff career, but he has turned a corner since that experience and has scored 13 goals and 35 points in his last 20 games. As he continues to play at this very high level, he will rise past MacKinnon in playoff performances.
McDavid’s All-Around Game Has Taken Form
Widely regarded as the best offensive player in the game, there’s no real dispute about McDavid. What makes him elite is that he’s also great at both ends of the ice. He just won his fourth Art Ross Trophy by leading the league in scoring in only his seventh season. As Holland states, “He’s got an incredible commitment now to defensive play. First shift in Game 7 of the opening round against Los Angeles, he runs over one of their players. He sets the tone. He’s going to be really physical. I think there’s been a few games he’s led our team in hits. He’s backchecking. He’s playing physical.”
Backchecking, being in the right position and being physical are key to making an impact defensively. Skilled players aren’t expected to throw their body around because it puts them at risk of injury. Over the past two seasons, we’ve seen McDavid jump from making around 30 hits a season to making around the mid-60s in less than full seasons.
On the backcheck, McDavid constantly has the puck on his stick and uses energy if he and his line are in the offensive zone. Not many players also skate up the ice at his speed while playing well over 20 minutes a night. He is generally near or below the net while on the attack as well, so he would have to make up a greater distance to backcheck, and he uses what’s left in his tank to strip the opposition of the puck from behind.
Avalanche/Oilers Matchup is Filled With Elite Talent
Other players are worth mentioning as well who have had an impact on their team in reaching the conference final.
The Avs have Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, and Devon Toews to name a few. Rantanen is seventh all-time in points per game in the playoffs (1.19) among players who have played at least 40 games. It helps that he plays beside MacKinnon, but he is also an underrated elite talent. Makar dominated Round 1 with 10 points in four games, while the team has five players who are at a point-per-game pace through two rounds.
As for the Oilers, Leon Draisaitl has the same number of points per game as Lemieux had in his career but lacks the number of games. Draisaitl also has the same number of goals and four more points than McDavid in the same amount of games, but he isn’t talked about nearly as much. He recorded 17 points in five games in Round 2 and set two NHL playoff records: he became the first player to record four assists in a single playoff period, and he recorded three or more points in four consecutive playoff games before doing it for a fifth time to extend the record.
The Oilers have gotten contributions from the rest of the team as well, starting with goaltender Mike Smith who had two shutouts in Round 1. Evander Kane has 12 goals in 12 games and is on pace to break records, while Zach Hyman has been very consistent, scoring in every game of Round 2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has also recorded 11 points and has flown under the radar, while defencemen Evan Bouchard and Cody Ceci have been stellar at both ends of the ice.
Related: Darryl Sutter’s Comments About Oilers’ Forward Usage Are True
The Western Conference Final will come down to more than just McDavid vs MacKinnon, but it will be a series to watch as they will both be centre stage.