DENVER — Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon didn’t take the bait.
Two of the NHL’s best players face off in the Western Conference Finals, but when asked about it, neither the Edmonton Oilers’ McDavid nor the Colorado Avalanche’s MacKinnon saw it that way.
“They’re a good team over there,” McDavid said Monday when asked about the speed-versus-speed duel against MacKinnon. “They’ve proven that over the last few years and this year is obviously no different. They have some really special players, they’re strong all round, a really good team.”
As much as they downplay it, these two are the ones to watch as the Avalanche and Oilers play Game 1 at Ball Arena on Tuesday (8:00 p.m. ET; TNT, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“Two of the best players in the league, two of the fastest players,” Avalanche defender said Eric Johnson said Sunday. “Just two of the most highly qualified guys you can get 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 finals in a while, so it’s exciting. I think we’re looking forward to being a part of it too. When you can have the best of the best, that’s simply the best a player can hope for. That’s what you want.”
[RELATED: Complete Avalanche vs. Oilers series coverage]
It’s an understandably expected matchup. McDavid, the Oilers captain, has captivated 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 score 26 or more points in the first 12 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only two to score more during 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 said so,” MacKinnon said of McDavid. “I think he’s been the best for a while now and it will take a full team effort to stop him, same goes for Draisaitl. But they are 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’s running really well, he’s strong, playing the game at top speed all the time and making it difficult to defend.”
Video: [email protected], Gm5: MacKinnon’s 2nd playoff hat trick
avalanche defender Kal Makar meets MacKinnon regularly in training but said everyone brings their own challenges.
“Obviously there are a lot of similarities between MacKinnon and McDavid, but at the same time they are very different styles of play,” he said. “McDavid is obviously very good at rushing and very fast and he has the fast steps right at the beginning. So for us it will just try to stay ahead of him. Otherwise not much.
“They are both such electric players and McDavid has been the driving force behind them and their other top guys. It will be a good test but we are all excited.”
Oiler’s goalie mike smith said: “Obviously ‘Nate’ is a unique player, a special player, a strong guy and you have to be aware of that when he’s on the ice.
“Every team seems to have one, two or three elite players that you get used to in practice, but when the game starts it’s kind of a different ball game. They have some special players over there that you just have to know when they are. They’re on the ice and they know they can face you pretty quickly. So you should be prepared for anything.
Video: [email protected], Gm5: McDavid sends Oilers through to the next round
For MacKinnon and McDavid, it’s a team-first mentality, not top strikers versus top strikers. Still, everyone is likely to be a big part of the conference’s final show.
“They are in the media spotlight. Obviously we’ll see that in this round. It’s going to be exciting,” said Joe Sakic, Avalanche’s general manager. “They have 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] posts. For the league, if you are a fan of the game you will enjoy this series. It’s the best of the best and it’s going to be a great seven-game series.”