As excited as most hockey fans are about watching a Western Conference Final between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche unfold in real time, it likely pales in comparison to the joy being felt at NHL headquarters. In the league’s first year back with ESPN as they’re broadcasting partner, they get a Connor McDavid vs Nathan MacKinnon marquee to help try and sell the game one more time.
Some will suggest having bigger American markets involved would be a better fit for the league in hopes of getting more eyeballs to watch the latter stages of the playoffs (though the New York Rangers continue to do all they can to try and join in on the party) but it’s never worked in the past. Yes, getting more eyeballs is important but at this stage, creating a buzz around the game is of greater importance.
In order for NHL to have any shot of ever becoming a product that both die-hard and casual American sports fans will have any interest in following, it will need their elite players to sell the game on the ice. Outside of the Crosby vs Ovechkin match-up, this is a league that has rarely had this kind of opportunity and with due respect to Sid and Alex, this has the potential to have a much greater impact.
With every day that passes, social media takes a greater hold on the sporting landscape and nothing creates interest more than a “WOW” moment and these teams have already delivered a few. From an NHL perspective, the argument could be made that there are three players who demonstrate said ability on a regular basis in today’s game and all of them happen to be involved in this series.
The chances of McDavid, MacKinnon or Cale Makar doing stuff over the course of this series that would make the non-hockey fan sit-up and take notice, is quite real and we’ve already started to see it at times during these playoffs. The buzz has already started and the league needed for the stars to align to get them the platform required to try and take this to another level. Mission accomplished.
And the best part in all of this, these are two teams that have a plethora of skill up and down their lineups and are at their best when playing with pace. At times, the NHL doesn’t resemble the game it should, due in large part to coaching and there not being enough high-end skill to go around to play a more entertaining brand of hockey. Again, that isn’t the case with these two teams.
Edmonton has been scoring at will through much of these playoffs and while McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have rightly received much of the credit, the quartet of Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and defenceman Evan Bouchard have raised their level and because of it, the Oilers have morphed into an offensive juggernaut that opposing team cannot handle.
As far as the Avalanche go, the trio of Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen gives them a forward group that is more than capable of competing with the Edmonton. Not to mention Andre Burakovsky, who hasn’t been good so far in these playoffs but is coming off a fantastic regular season. They have firepower to spare and as a whole, have a much better backend than the Oilers.
Include two goaltenders into the mix, in Darcy Kuemper and Mike Smith, who have had their share of ups and downs during these playoffs and this series could be something pretty special. As we saw during the Battle of Alberta with the Calgary Flames, all it takes is for a goaltender to be just slightly of his norm (hello Jakob Markstrom) and goals are likely to come in bunches.
And in the end, it’s not just about the amount of goals that are scored but rather the speed at which this series will surely be played at and chances that will be creaeted. When you combine that element with the aforementioned skill these two lineups possess, the chances of this not being a spectacle a sports fan would want to at least check in on and see what’s up, seems rather unlikely.
As an added bonus, the Oilers - Avalanche will go up against the NBA Finals only once during the first four games of this series, with a potential for two more head-to-head dates later on (Game Five and Six). Point being, there are eyeballs to be had and if this series can deliver what so many of us are expecting, people will tune in and the NHL could end up being the biggest winner of all.
Add to that, the real potential for an Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and a Tampa Bay Lightning side looking to become the first three-time defending Stanley Cup Champion since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty and yes, the NHL has been handed a gift. Now it’s up to the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche to give us a something to remember.
No pressure, guys.