2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 3 Preview: Avalanche vs. Oilers
We’ve finally reached the final four of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But it might be more appropriate to call it the finally four out West. While it’s great to see the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers just one step away from hockey’s biggest stage, there’s one prevailing question from the hockey world for both sides: what took you so long?
After all, these two teams accounted for five of the first six No. 1 picks of the 2010s. Edmonton’s clock began ticking when they took Connor McDavid first overall in 2015. He and 2014 No. 3 pick Leon Draisaitl form an explosive one-two threat down the middle or make a deadly first-line no matter who’s tagging along. The Oilers seemed locked in as one of hockey’s rising powerhouses after coming within a game of the 2017 Western Conference Final. But a lack of depth and inability to keep the puck out of the net prevented the Oilers from even returning to the second round until this season.
Meanwhile, Colorado has been regarded as one of the league’s premier teams for a few years now. Their ascent started after a rock-bottom, 48-point 2016-17 season that saw them slide as far as possible in the draft lottery. But Colorado found a gem at No. 4 in Cale Makar just two years after finding another in Mikko Rantanen with the No. 10 pick in 2015. A breakout 2017-18 season from 2013’s top pick Nathan MacKinnon put Colorado back on the map; this season marks Colorado’s fifth straight playoff trip and fourth straight year winning at least a series.
But that “at least’ qualifier wasn’t necessarily until this season. Colorado, which entered this season with a longer conference finals drought than every other team except Columbus (N/A, founded in 2000-2001) Florida (1996), had lost in the second round three consecutive seasons; twice in a Game 7. They were the lesser team in 2019 against San Jose. But they might have won if not for one sloppy, perhaps slightly controversial moment. Injuries plagued the team in the bubble against Dallas, and yet they still led late in the third of Game 7. They were less than six minutes away from going up 3-0 on Vegas last year; instead, they never regained momentum and fell in six.
The good news for both sides if that they’ve stepped over a major hurdle in getting to this stage. But as crazy as it sounds for how much has happened to both teams so far in these playoffs, they’re only halfway to the Stanley Cup. It’s why the trophy is regarded as the toughest one to win in all of sports. One of these teams will earn the right to play for it. And it figures to be an all-out sprint to be the first to win four games in an incredibly entertaining matchup.
Colorado Avalanche (56-19-7, No. 1 Central) vs. Edmonton Oilers (49-27-6, No. 3 Pacific)
Recent History: There’s not much in this category, which isn’t terribly surprising; Edmonton’s dynasty began to fall off just before Colorado acquired Patrick Roy and became one of the league’s premier teams in the late 90s/early 2000s. They met twice in the late 90s, with Colorado the heavy favorite both times. Edmonton managed a split, losing in Round 2 in ’97 but winning in seven in Round 1 the next year.
Season Series: Basically as even as it gets. Both teams won once in regulation, with Colorado holding a slide edge with an extra victory in OT. 5-on-5 play was pretty even, too; Edmonton held a slight edge in expected goals share at 5-on-5, and the teams finished even in shots. Two things that could maybe make this a lower-scoring series than some expect. First, both power-plays were below 16% in the regular season series. And even more shockingly, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combined for zero goals against Colorado in the regular season.
The Last Time Here: Who’s ready for some blasts from the past? Both teams did win their last Western Conference Final series… but neither came within the last 15 years. The Avalanche rode past St. Louis in 2001 in five en route to their second Stanley Cup in five years. Edmonton’s last appearance in the third round is a bit more recent; it came back in 2006, as the No. 8 seed Oilers needed just five games to dispatch the No. 6 seed Ducks, making their only Stanley Cup Finals run since their last Cup win in 1990.
The Road Thus Far: Just the way you’d draw it up for Colorado. A convincing sweep over Nashville in Round 1, just like against the Blues the year before. St. Louis once again squared off with the Avalanche, this time in the second round. And they started to offer the type of resistance that has tripped Colorado up before. Game 5’s comeback Blues win felt like it could be the start of something special in St. Louis. But Darren Helm’s late goal in Game 6 prevented the Blues from truly pushing Colorado to the ropes, which the Avalanche were very smart to avoid.
Edmonton’s playoffs have gone as their offense has gone. When the scoring’s been there, they’ve been nearly unstoppable, and it’s been very impossible to stop it from being there. Jonathan Quick and the Drew Doughty-less Kings actually did a pretty good job in Round 1, save for a 14-goal blitz across Games 2 and 3. But the Oilers pushed through in the big moments in Games 6 and 7, scoring the final four goals of the series after facing elimination in Game 6 tied at two apiece.
In a major surprise, the Flames could hardly do anything to limit Edmonton’s production. The Oilers scored at least four goals in every game of the series, clutching out Games 4 and 5 late in regulation and in overtime, respectively. They may have gotten some luck along the way, but every deep playoff run involves some. And that’s hardly something the Oilers should apologize for.
Colorado Wins Because: They can not only do what Edmonton can, but a whole lot more. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the game’s most dynamic talents. If arguably the best defensive center duo in the league (L.A.’s Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault) and the built for the playoffs Flames can’t contain, let alone stop them, no one is going to. With the way Edmonton’s best players are playing, there’s really only one option: beat them at their own game.
Thankfully for Colorado, they have a team full of players who give them a strong chance of doing just that. While the Oilers are opting to stack their top line (more on that later), Colorado has broken up one of the league’s best lines over the last few years, moving Mikko Rantanen away from Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.
MacKinnon is Colorado’s best answer to the Oilers’ deadly duo, an elite offensive threat with a capital E who is one of the league’s most dangerous playmakers and snipers off the rush. It’s the dual threat ability of MacKinnon that makes him so special. He finished seventh in the regular season in shots per 60 and just outside the top 10 in primary shot assists per 60. He’s been on another level in these playoffs, rocking an expected goals share over 66% with the Avs outscoring opponents 11-4 with him on the ice. MacKinnon’s been firing the puck like a mad man (nearly 14 shots per 60) and also generating greater quality on those shots than each of the last two playoffs. He’s *only* T-8th in playoff scoring, but make no mistake; MacKinnon is playing some great hockey right now.
It helps that he has more help than ever before. While the Avalanche haven’t exactly lacked quality depth in the past, their forward core is as stacked as ever. A large part of that is due to Nazem Kadri’s breakout season. He outscored his previous career-high in regular season points by 26 and has scored at a point-per-game clip in these playoffs. His emergence adds another high-end rush oriented player, the same style that Mikko Rantanen plays. Kadri was a zone entry machine in the regular season. He, Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin were all above league average in controlled zone entry percentage during the regular season.
That accounts for every notable Avalanche forward except Gabriel Landeskog, who provides a nice complement alongside MacKinnon as a more traditional physical power-forward who excels on the forecheck. Analytical trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen has proven to be a strong third component of Colorado’s top-line; the trio has a stellar 69.59% expected goals share together in these playoffs. Eight different Avalanche players have multiple goals in these playoffs, with Rantanen not even being among them. Yes, Edmonton has improved its depth; they wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. But Colorado’s is more likely to make a difference against an Oilers team that ranks 11th in the playoffs and 17th in the regular season in expected goals against.
While the Avalanche have an advantage on paper on defense, that has been lessened due to a season-ending broken sternum for Samuel Girard. While Cale Makar is correctly the headliner of Colorado’s backend, Girard finished the regular season ninth in the NHL in successful zone exits & retrievals per 60. His loss is especially notable because while Colorado’s top-six is excellent, their depth falls off fast; Jack Johnson and Kurtis MacDermid, two of the sport’s biggest analytical punching bags, are Girard’s understudies. MacDermid in particular has a case to be the worst puck-moving defenseman in the sport. While maybe he could be a bit more effective in a more physical playoff atmosphere, one of those two with Josh Manson is a pairing that could struggle to move the puck. Jared Bednar will need to keep them away from McDavid and Draisaitl at all costs.
Of course, Colorado has plenty of talent even with Girard on the shelf. Makar ranks fourth in the entire playoffs by Corey Sznajder’s Game Score metric, which accounts for shots, passes, zone entries, and zone exits. The next highest defenseman is Adam Fox, who ranks 17th. He also leads all NHL d-men in points per game these playoffs (min. 4 games played). Devon Toews isn’t too far behind; if anyone is going to emerge in Girard’s absence, it’s likely Toews, who’s been an underrated puckmover dating back to his days with the Islanders. Both his pair with Makar and the classic youngster with a veteran pairing of Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson are top among playoff d-pairs in expected goals percentage in the playoffs. That pairing could be a huge difference maker for Colorado, either/both in a shutdown role or feasting on non-McDavid/Draisaitl minutes.
Finally, while most would argue Colorado has the stronger netminder as well, Darcy Kuemper has dealt with similar inconsistencies that Edmonton starter Mike Smith has faced. Kuemper struggled out of the gates in his first season in Denver, leading some to question if he was even good enough to be Colorado’s playoff starter. A strong end to the year quelled those concerns… but they’re starting to reappear. Through two rounds, Kuemper ranks 26th out of 30 NHL goalies to play in the playoffs with -3.0 goals saved above average. Remember, Kuemper suffered a scary-looking injury in Round 1 where he inadvertently took a stick to near his eye through his mask. The Avalanche need him back in January-April form stat.
Edmonton Wins Because: The way they are playing right now, the Oilers are simply unstoppable. The way they are playing involves putting Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together, something that has generally felt like an admission of desperation in the past. It’s not that the two haven’t been successful together before, or aren’t succeeding together right now; the duo has a 58.31% expected goals share together and are outscoring opponents 17-5, more than making up for an Oilers power-play that wasn’t as dominant as usual against Calgary. They combined for a jaw-dropping 29 points, completing picking apart one of the league’s best structured teams in the Flames.
The Girard injury changes a lot about how I feel about this series. If Girard was healthy, Colorado’s depth on defense would seem likely to smother the rest of Edmonton’s forward group. But Colorado’s going to have at least one vulnerable pair. And if Jay Woodcroft plays the matchup game right, that could really free up the Zach Hyman/Ryan Nugent-Hopkins/Jesse Puljujärvi line. Hyman was an underrated X-factor in Round 2, scoring both his traditional goals around the net-front but also sniping on Jacob Markström, scoring six times in total. The only year of the McDavid era the Oilers advanced past the first round before this year, the one season Milan Lucic performed like a top-six forward for Edmonton. Hyman has been that and more for Edmonton in these playoffs.
While the Oilers should probably stick with McDavid and Draisaitl together given the latter’s struggles away from the former (which in fairness, may be due to injury), shifting who’s on that top line with them could be a smart decision. The Hyman-Nugent-Hopkins-Puljujärvi trio has a mediocre 49.61% expected goals share and have heavily been outshot at 5-on-5. Puljujärvi’s the lone forward in Edmonton’s top-six who isn’t scoring much right now. But he’s always been better in a support role and does a lot of the little things well, especially on the forecheck and in the dirty areas. Spreading the wealth a bit more and moving Evander Kane’s 12 goals to help lift up different players could help Edmonton close the depth gap between the Oilers and Avalanche.
The Oilers may not be able to score with Colorado’s bottom-six, but they do need better performances from their depth. Edmonton’s current fourth line of Josh Archibald-Derek Ryan-Zack Kassian has particularly struggled in these playoffs; they’ve been gashed for a sub 30% expected goals share and outscored 2-0. The third line’s been better but still slightly outchanced. It feels like Kailer Yamamoto in particular has more to give offensively. Perhaps spreading the wealth is still the right option for the Oilers; but it’s the second line that should be moved around more so than the first.
The Oilers’ defense, even with Colorado missing Girard, is the weaker of the two units in this series. They can certainly score; five Oilers d-men have goals in these playoffs, combining for eight in total. Those rank second and T-2nd in the playoffs, respectively. Having a defense that can jump up in the play is a valuable asset and makes Edmonton even more dangerous. But if they’re too aggressive, Colorado will certainly make them pay. All three of Edmonton’s defense pairs are above 51% in expected goals share; but there’s not one true shutdown duo that gives much more confidence at slowing down MacKinnon and friends than the others. The Oilers particularly struggled in the regular season at exiting the zone with control and it’s easy to worry about this series becoming: Colorado threatens, Edmonton barely clears to center, and repeat.
That’s at least true at 5-on-5. To win the series as the underdog, winning the special teams battle is crucial, if not a necessity. The Oilers’ power-play has picked up right where it left off in the regular season, when it had the second best controlled entry percentage in the league and could threaten off both set-ups and even off the rush. McDavid and Draisaitl wizardry is obvious. Tyson Barrie has long been an outstanding PP quarterback. And Hyman adds a sorely missed element of an outstanding net-front presence. The penalty kill is a bit more interesting; Edmonton’s strong 85.1% success rate loses some shine when considering it ranks 13th in the playoffs in expected goals against per 60.
The discrepancy there is due to Mike Smith’s strong play while the Oilers are shorthanded; Smith’s .938 save percentage while the Oilers are shorthanded is 3rd best in the league (min. 20 shorthanded minutes played). His overall body of work, however, is much sketchier. Interestingly, the numbers don’t really reflect that; Smith’s .927 save percentage is 4th best in the playoffs, as are his 8.8 goals saved above expected (min. 3 games for each).
But it’s not the number of goals Smith gives up, but rather the ones he does allow. Even excusing Rasmus Andersson’s 150-foot tally or so in Game 4 last round as an outlier, Smith has always had more than his fair share of glaring mistakes. That happens with a goaltender who plays the puck as much as Smith; an underrated x-factor could be his puck handling, in fact. Making zone exits as easy as possible for this Oilers defense would be extremely helpful.
The Pick: The Oilers as a team, not just McDavid and Draisaitl, do a lot of things well. They’re a very dangerous team offensively that can threaten off boh the rush and the forecheck. Their special teams are strong. Smith did lead all goalies in Round 1 in goals saved above expected. And Draisaitl and especially McDavid are nearly unstoppable when playing their best hockey, which they are right now; even with Draisaitl playing hurt. Finishing the Flames in five helps get him closer to full health, too.
But everything Edmonton does (well), Colorado does better. The Avalanche may not have a player as dynamic as McDavid. But they do have quite a few that can generate offense at an incredibly high level and play with tremendous speed and skill. They’ve also got plenty of physicality as well. And while their depth is starting to be tested, their high-end players are more than capable of taking on even larger roles as the lights shine brighter. Kuemper is probably the higher floor, lower ceiling of the two goaltenders; that’s somewhat scary in a series against two of the league’s most dynamic talents. But given Colorado’s sizable advantage on defense, my bet’s on the Avalanche overwhelming Smith to a high enough degree to make what’s felt like an inevitable Finals run for about four years now. Avalanche in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the predictions are mine. The focus on this series is on the stars. MacKinnon vs. McDavid. Draisaitl vs. Rantanen. Makar vs. Nurse (ok, Nurse might be a bit of a stretch, but bare with me). But, as we always hear, the playoffs are a time where unsung heroes emerge. The series winner in this matchup is coming from either a bottom-six forward or third-pairing defenseman. It’s not as outlandish as it might sound; after all, it happened for Colorado just last round.