DENVER — Beyond the marquee matchup featuring Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon there’s another just as intriguing — the goaltenders responsible for stopping two of the best scorers in the world.
They’re each embracing the challenge, too, as the Western Conference final starts Tuesday night in Denver.
Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper called the prospects of going against the difficult-to-contain McDavid a “fun challenge.” At 40 years old, Edmonton netminder Mike Smith simply relishes this chance.
“You gain experiences along the way as you get older and older,” Smith said Monday on the eve of Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. “They can only help you in situations like this.”
Going up against the likes of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and defenseman Cale Makar in practice every week has prepared Kuemper for seeing the speed of McDavid & Co. rush toward him.
The same holds true in preparing Smith for MacKinnon. Smith’s seen it all — every kind of wicked shot — from McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“He brings so much energy and so much passion to the game,” McDavid said of his goaltender. “It’s makes you want to play hard in front of him for sure.”
Smith’s enjoying every step of the journey toward the Stanley Cup. He’s playing well, too, stopping 381 of 411 shots so far in the playoffs.
“Your opportunities to get to the conference final don’t come around every day,” Smith said. “It’s something that you want to take advantage of when you get here and prepare yourself to try and get to the ultimate spot and that’s in the final.”
It’s been a bumpy road to the West final for Kuemper, the 32-year-old veteran who was acquired from Arizona last summer. He set a career-high with 37 wins in the regular season, but was banged up in Game 3 of the Nashville series after catching a stick near his eye between the bars of his mask (the swelling has subsided).
Now, he draws McDavid.
“Obviously, he’s an electric, dynamic player,” said Kuemper, who has a 2.44 goals-against average in the playoffs. “It’s a fun challenge. You want to face the best players in the world and looking forward to it.”
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]
MACKINNON VS. MCDAVID
McDavid and MacKinnon were both not particularly interested in chatting too much about their impending matchup.
“They’re a good team over there,” McDavid said when asked about MacKinnon. “They’ve got some real special players and they’re deep all around.”
MacKinnon echoed that thought when reflecting on McDavid.
“I think he’s the best. I’ve said it. 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,” MacKinnon said. “They’re deeper than teams give them credit for. They wouldn’t be where they are without the full team effort.”
Edmonton front-office executive Ken Holland thinks highly of his general manager counterpart in this series, Joe Sakic, and the work he’s done assembling this Avalanche team.
“One of the best in the business,” Holland said.
The respect is mutual. Holland was the general manager in Detroit during Sakic’s Hall of Fame playing career with the Avalanche.
“He’s been around a long time,” Sakic said. “He’s done a tremendous job.”
This is how long it’s been since Colorado and Edmonton met in the postseason: Makar and defenseman Bowen Byram weren’t even born yet.
Colorado and Edmonton met twice before, with the Avalanche taking the 1997 conference semifinal series, 4-1. The following postseason, the Oilers won in Game 7 in the quarterfinal round.
“The Avs had some really good teams back in the day, winning Cups, conference championships — everything,” Byram said. “I feel like everybody knows about those series.”
In 2019, the Avalanche dealt longtime defenseman Tyson Barrie to Toronto as part of a deal that brought in Nazem Kadri. It was a business decision, with Makar about to arrive on the scene.
Now with the Oilers, Barrie’s been an integral part of their success.
“It’s pretty well documented how loved (Barrie) was in this city and in the locker room — and the same thing with (Kadri),” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “He (Baraie) had a lot of success with us here. We’re looking forward to playing with him — or against him, I should say.”
The Avalanche lost in the second round in three straight playoff appearances before breaking through this season against St. Louis.
The Oilers lost last season in the first round — and the season before in the qualifying round — before dispatching of the Los Angeles Kings in seven games during the opening round and Calgary in five.
“You have to go through some of the scars to seek some growth,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “It’s not always fun, but at some point the fabric of your team gets tested. One of the messages we give to our team is the old saying that the road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled.”