Colorado (55-16-6) at Edmonton (45-26-6)
Earlier this month, on April 9th, these teams faced off in a competitive and tightly contested game, with the Avs winning 2-1 in the shootout. Koskinen was fantastic, although it was Kuemper that stole the show stopping 49 of 50 shots, including 3 more in the skills competition.
That game, and to be frank most of their work since, has shown us exactly what we would hope to see from the Oilers, that they can go toe to toe with the best the league has to offer. It seems as though we have witnessed their metamorphosis over the season.
Symbolically, there is a certain poetry to the Oilers closing the season at a pace similar to their torrid season-opening stretch. Early on it seemed as if the Oilers would run away with the division, and they have proven that they are above the middling playoff-bubble peloton, but along the way they have had to re-imagine themselves, improved, re-forged in the fires of disappointment, re-committed in the face of doubt.
In other words the Oilers have finally built a strong enough team identity to support the MVP talents of McDavid and Draisaitl. They may not be perfect or without their share of questions, but there is legitimate reason to believe in this team.
Tonight they will be going up against what is perhaps the top contender in the West, if not league wide, in the supremely talented Avalanche. The Avs will be without 2 key forwards, Rantanen and Landeskog, as well as 2 key defenders, Toews and Murray, but still have more than enough star power in the lineup to be a measuring stick of sorts. At the very least with 2 points tonight the Oilers will officially clinch a playoff spot.
We’re expecting to see Smith and Kuemper get the starts in net for their teams.
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Power play. The Oilers showed they can defend against this opponent, and although some key players are missing MacKinnon, Kadri, and Makar are more than enough to be on high alert. The Avs are in the upper echelon thanks to more than their offence though, and the Oilers will need to capitalize on their opportunities, including those on the power play, against such an organized opposition.
- Defend. The Avs should be looking to replicate the 1 goal against effort from their last game against the Oil, but should be hoping to lessen the load they placed on Kuemper to stop as many shots. They should be locked in, using their speed to forecheck and backcheck the Oilers attack into a grinding halt, as well as a strong penalty kill. They still have a lot of offensive talent, but missing Rantanen and Landeskog limits their ability to keep pace in a higher scoring affair.
Kane — McDavid — Yamamoto
McLeod — Draisaitl — Hyman
Foegele — RNH — Ryan
Brassard — xxxxx — Kassian
Nurse — Ceci
Keith — Bouchard
Kulak — Barrie
Russell — xxxxx
Lehkonen — MacKinnon — Nichushkin
Burakovsky — Kadri — Compher
Meyers — Sturm — Newhook
Cogliano — Helm — O’Connor
Byram — Makar
Girard — Manson
MacDermid — Johnson
PLAYERS TO WATCH
With Puljujarvi missing tonight’s game with an illness there has been a bit of reshuffling in the top 6. Yamamoto jumps up onto McDavid’s wing, while McLeod fills on Draisaitl’s line. McLeod has looked quite strong with Draisaitl which is likely the impetus for the shuffling. It is a bit funny to think back to the winter when the depth of this forward group was lacking, especially when the team can fill a hole as big as Puljujarvi so well.
The 7 defencemen lineup has worked wonders for Woodcroft, and the offence heavy blueline certainly appreciates Russell and his defensive prowess. The Oilers have gotten the most out of their group by slotting their players correctly, not asking too much of anyone. Aces in their places, one might say.
Clearly, Smith is the choice headed into the playoffs. It’s been a tumultuous season but he is peaking at the perfect time. Koskinen filled in admirably, delivering what might be his best work as an Oiler, and we still could see the Finn in another couple games through the regular season and playoffs, but he is far and away the second choice.
With their top 2 wingers out of the lineup things are looking a bit more scarce than usual for the Avs. Naturally there is still plenty of talent here.
Nichushkin and Lehkonen are both very strong defensive wingers, Nichushkin in particular is of a high calibre. The former top 10 draft pick is strong, powerful, fast, and has some skill, but has blossomed into an extremely effective player for the Avs after things didn’t work out in Dallas early in his career.
Kadri is having a career year, good timing as he is a UFA this summer, and has continued to steadily improve throughout his career. He is a unique blend of attributes with some elite tier hands and a competitive spirit that is abrasive, if not a bit over the top. Burakovsky has great speed while Compher brings some versatility.
Sturm is a manifestation of GM Sakic calling his shot, giving the extra forward from Minnesota’s roster a key spot here. He is a big body and a defensive presence in a bottom 6 that focuses heavily on speed, as all of Newhook, Cogliano, O’Connor, and Helm are known to be particularly fast.
On the blueline we will get to see the talented Byram in Toews’ regular spot beside the incomparable Makar. It’s great to see 2 talents together, but especially so given Byram’s tough season injury wise. Although Byram has a long way to go to catch Makar, if that’s even possible, these are probably 2 of the best offensive defencemen drafted in the past decade, at least from western Canada, if not the world at large. Byram is still so early into his career, at this point we are simply happy to see him back on the ice.
Girard is another offensively gifted blueliner, and is paired with an opposite skillset in the big, mean, Manson. After Vegas was able to bully the Avs out of the playoffs last season, particularly victimizing the smaller Girard on forechecks, having a presence like Manson should be an important addition.
MacDermid has done extremely well when filling in on the Avs 3rd pair over the past couple seasons, naturally he is a bit unheralded outside the market. Johnson, Erik in this case, is a great veteran to have lower in the lineup. Along with Johnson, Jack, it’s hard to tell what the Avs ideal blueline would be if everyone were healthy, as Toews and likely Murray would be drawing back in. Regardless, the playoffs are a battle of attrition and the Avs have some depth on the back end.