DENVER — Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon weren’t taking the bait.
Two of the best players in the NHL are facing each other in the Western Conference Final but when asked about it, neither McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers nor MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche were looking at it that way.
“They’re a good team over there,” McDavid said Monday when asked about the speed-versus-speed matchup against MacKinnon. “They’ve proven that over the last couple of years, obviously this year is no different. They have some real special players, they’re deep all around, a real good team.”
As much as they downplay it, those two are the ones to watch when the Avalanche and Oilers play Game 1 at Ball Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; TNT, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“Two of the best players in the League going at it, two of the fastest players,” Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson said Sunday. “Just two of the most highly skilled guys that you could pick out of the League.
“I think it’s great for hockey, I think it’s great for the fans, I think it’s great for both teams. Both teams haven’t been to the conference final in a while, so it’s exciting. I think we’re excited to be a part of it as well. when you can have best on best, that’s just the best you could hope for as a player. That’s what you want.”
It’s an understandably anticipated matchup. McDavid, the Oilers captain, has been mesmerizing this postseason with 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 12 games. He and Edmonton forward Leon Draisaitl are the sixth and seventh players to have 26 or more points through the first 12 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only two who scored more in that span were Wayne Gretzky (34 points in 1983 and 32 in 1985 for the Oilers) and Mario Lemieux (29 in 1992 for the Pittsburgh Penguins).
“I think he’s the best, I’ve said it,” MacKinnon said of McDavid. “I think he’s been the best for a little bit now and it’s going to take a full team effort to stop him, same with Draisaitl. But they’re deeper than teams give them credit for. They’re very deep, they wouldn’t be where they are without the full team effort.”
MacKinnon has 13 points (eight goals, five assists) in 10 games, including his second career playoff hat trick in Game 5 of the second round against the St. Louis Blues. MacKinnon (four goals, two assists) and McDavid (one goal, five assists) each have six power-play points.
“There’s a lot to like,” McDavid said of MacKinnon. “Obviously, he skates real well, he’s strong, plays the game at top speed all the time and makes it tough to defend.”
Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar faces MacKinnon in practice regularly but said each brings his own challenges.
“Obviously there’s a lot of similarities between MacKinnon and McDavid, but at the same time, they’re very different playing styles,” he said. “McDavid’s obviously very good off the rush and very fast and he’s got the quick steps right at the beginning. So for us, it’s just going to try and be staying in front of him. Not much else to it.
“They’re both such electric players and McDavid’s been the driving force for them as well as their other their other top guys. He’ll be he’ll be a good test, but we’re all excited.”
Oilers goalie Mike Smith said, “Obviously ‘Nate’s’ a unique player, a special player, a powerful guy, and you just got to be aware when he’s on the ice.
“Every team seems to have one or two or three elite players that you get used to facing in practice, but when the game starts it’s kind of a different ballgame. They have some special players over there that you got to just know when they’re on the ice and know they can get in your face pretty fast. So, you should be ready for anything.”
For MacKinnon and McDavid, it’s a team-first mentality, not top forward against top forward. Nevertheless, each will likely be a big part of the conference final show.
“There’s a lot of media spotlight on them. Obviously, we’re going to see that here in this round. It’s going to be exciting,” Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic said. “They’ve got some world-class players there, two of the best in the game, and so do we. Both teams have great depth, up and down lineups [there’s] contributions. For the League, if you’re a fan of the game, you’re going to enjoy this series. It’s best-on-best, and it’s going to be a great seven-game series.”
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