The Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers waited 20 years and 16 years, respectively, to reach the conference finals.
And now, the matchup could be one for the ages.
The key will be the play of two former No. 1 overall draft picks: Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon (2013) and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (2015), McDavid has 26 points in 12 games and MacKinnon had a spectacular end-to-end rush to cap off a hat trick.
Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl is tied with McDavid in points while linemate Evander Kane leads the playoffs with 12 goals. Colorado defenseman Cale Makar is dangerous on the rush and Nazem Kadri had a big hat trick during trying circumstances.
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The Tampa Bay Lightning, bidding for a third consecutive Stanley Cup, will face the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final. The focus in this series will be on the goalies. New York’s Igor Shesterkin is the expected Vezina Trophy winner and Andrei Vasilevskiy is money in the playoffs.
USA TODAY Sports’ NHL staffers make their predictions for the conference finals:
Colorado Avalanche vs. Edmonton Oilers
Jimmy Hascup: Avalanche in six. Nathan MacKinnon vs. Connor McDavid is a matchup that has hockey fans salivating. While McDavid has somehow reached another level in these playoffs, it won’t be enough against the Avalanche, who are a well-rounded team with offensive firepower of its own. I don’t really trust either goalie, so this could be a high-scoring series, one that the Avs are battle-tested for after a tougher-than-expected series against the Blues.
Mike Brehm: Avalanche in six. Connor McDavid has been impressive on both ends of the ice. But he’ll be facing a defense that’s deep even with the loss of Sam Girard. If the Avalanche can keep McDavid from dominating — he had four assists in three regular-season games — Colorado has the offensive depth to advance.
New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Hascup: Rangers in six. New York has defied expectations through the first two rounds, so why not now? Sure, the Lightning are the favorites and they’ve proven they can beat teams in a variety of ways, but the Rangers’ time was going to come eventually. Their top players have played better as the playoffs have progressed, the young ones are standing out and Igor Shesterkin is at the top of his game. Tampa is the more rested team this series, but the core group has still played a lot of hockey over the past two seasons, so the “fatigue” factor might not be as big of an issue against a Rangers team that has played back-to-back seven-game series.
Brehm: Lightning in six. Outside one game, the Rangers didn’t face a No. 1 goalie in the playoffs. Now, they face Andrei Vasilevskiy, last year’s Conn Smythe winner. He had a 0.75 goals-against average and a .981 save percentage in a sweep of the No. 1 overall Florida Panthers. If the Rangers continue to be outshot and force Igor Shesterkin to save them, that could spell trouble against the playoff-tested Lightning.