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The Eastern Conference Finals was billed as a battle of the two best goalies in the world, while the Western Conference Finals featured two of the best forwards in the world.
In the end, it was Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche who defeated the Edmonton Oilers, just as many predicted.
It’s not that MacKinnon is better than McDavid – although he might currently lay claim to being the second best player in the world – but the Avalanche are built to win, built to win now. The Oilers overcame a poor roster build and midseason coaching change to get to this point, but their season is over after being swept by Colorado on Monday night and losing Game 4 in overtime 6-5.
An Avs win always felt inevitable. From the opening series against Nashville to the second-round win over St. Louis, they proved they belonged in the finals by stepping on their opponents’ throats and not letting up. After years of disappointment in the playoffs, the narrative surrounding the team has changed as the Avs exorcised their playoff demons and showed they know how to win when it counts and do so convincingly.
Artturi Lehkonen scored the overtime winner – which was fitting given he scored the overtime winner that sent the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Finals last year – but it was Cale Makar who saved him with a shot from the point prepared. which was perhaps more fitting given how Makar drove this team in the postseason.
The defenseman had a five-point night in Game 4 to bring his postseason total to 22 points. His postseason expected goals (xGF) of 17.43 is only behind McDavid’s 20.68. He was named a Norris Trophy finalist for his incredible performance in the regular season and looked just as good in the postseason. He could be the best two-way defender in the league, and the fact that he’s matching layer after layer with McDavid is testament to that.
Derek Leung/Getty Images
The defenseman had a five-point night in Game 4 to bring his postseason total to 22 points. His postseason expected goals (xGF) of 17.43 is only behind McDavid’s 20.68. He was named a Norris Trophy finalist for his incredible performance in the regular season and looked just as good in the postseason. He could be the best two-way defender in the league.
This is a deep defense corps outside of Makar and his partner Devon Toews. The Avs lost Samuel Girard in the second round when he punctured his sternum against the St. Louis Blues, but Bowen Byram, who has missed so much with concussion issues in recent seasons, had a breakthrough postseason.
Corey Sznajder tracked puck returns to gauge defenders’ effectiveness. As you can see in his tweet, the Avs’ blueliners proved adept at dodging pressure and avoiding turnovers.
Corey Sznajder @ShutdownLine
Puck retrieves were the main category I added to my tracking this year. It’s a different take on zone exits, but more of how well defenders dodge pressure to make plays or avoid losing possession. No surprise to see Colorado leading the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/wmxUiuoucy
And the defender had to be good, especially against players like McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But the Oilers did provide some help in that regard, especially online.
Despite a characteristically dominant performance from McDavid and an unreal performance from a clearly limping Draisaitl, the Oilers were crushed by inconsistent goalies from Mike Smith and they were drowned out by a much deeper roster. It’s unfortunate that even the most casual fans will have to wait another year to see if McDavid and Draisaitl can make it to a Stanley Cup final, and it’s upsetting for Alberta fans to see a team continually with world-class players comes up short. During that run, there were times when it felt like McDavid was single-handedly winning every game, dragging the Oilers from series to series.
The Oilers now have plenty of time to figure out where to go next. General manager Ken Holland has a decision to make about caretaker manager Jay Woodcroft and is unlikely to be able to afford Evander Kane. The club lack depth and a true No1 goalkeeper and have major salary cap issues.
That’s a question for another day. Right now the focus is on Colorado.
While the Avs have been impressive, they are also strong and their depth will be tested in the cup final. Nazim Kadri’s loss to Edmonton through injury means the forward will do it unlikely to play another game this season. He promoted winning the Conn Smythe Award.
But arguably the biggest question for the Avalanche in the next round is goalkeeping. It’s been an eventful postseason for goalies across the league, and Colorado wasn’t immune to the drama. Darcy Kuemper was injured in the first game of the series against the Oilers, missing Games 3 and 4. Pavel Francouz recorded a shutout in Game 3, but conceding five goals in Game 4 isn’t much consolation. Kuemper was able to back him up which was a promising sign and the break will be an advantage here too.
A year ago, MacKinnon lamented Colorado’s lack of postseason success in a particularly dour press conference. The desire to rewrite the narrative has helped push Colorado to the top, where a team with two top-five players belongs.
All the Avs have to do now is finish the work to secure the legacy.