You have to hand it to Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. He does have one of the best checking centers in the NHL at his disposal in Nazem Kadri. It would be easy, explicable, and defensible to just toss Kadri over the boards every time the Oilers put Connor McDavid out there, and be done with it. After all, it’s pretty much why the Avs acquired Kadri in the first place.
But it takes some balls to say, “Nah, fuck that. Let’s kick this pig!”
Bednar matched his best against the Oilers best in Game 1, pitting Nathan MacKinnon’s line against McDavid’s whenever he could. Hockey doesn’t really go for one-on-one matchups between a team’s two stars, given the vagaries of changes on the fly and a team’s usual indifference to matching up during the regular season. And even when it does, the sport’s culture doesn’t like to focus on it (which is why you get Eddie Olczyk mentioning Pat Maroon after any promo involving the Lightning). But this was the rare occasion when the league did get two of its premier stars eyeballing each other for a quarter of the game. And boy, was it a treat. And Bednar was rewarded with an 8-6 win.
Bednar isn’t the first, of course. The Flames and Daryl Sutter tried the same with their top line, but watched as McDavid and Leon Draisaitl skated past them at every opportunity and simply tore the injured — and not all that impressive to begin with — Calgary defense into chum. The Avalanche are far better equipped on the blue line though, and perhaps have the one pairing where both D-men can keep up with McDavid speed-wise in Cale Makar and Devon Toews. They were on the ice for almost all of McDavid’s shifts.
The theory must’ve been that MacKinnon has the speed to catch McDavid on the backcheck if he has to, and more to the point, would keep McDavid and his cohorts playing defense. And that Makar and Toews could skate themselves out of the deep end without providing McDavid and Draisaitl the turnovers that they have feasted on.
Which they all did. The Avs had 57 percent of the attempts when MacKinnon was on the ice, mostly against No. 97. Toews and Makar did even better, with rousing advantages in the Corsi and expected goals count while only facing Edmonton’s best.
And the difference came down to not only the Avs and Oilers’ top lines pretty much battling to a standstill, but Toews and Makar combining for one goal and five assists, while the Edmonton blue line only managed three assists.
This would have been a blowout if Avs defenseman Josh Manson didn’t see what it was like to spin around a baseball bat before every shift he had in the first two periods. He was culpable for the Oilers’ first three goals. Combined with Darcy Kuemper’s waywardness, either due to injury or just his natural state, it kept the Oilers around. But Mike Smith was no better for the Oilers, and neither starting goalie saw the end of the 2nd period.
While McDavid and Draisaitl can overcome a lot, they’re going to find it hard to fight off all the Avs’ weapons firing from every angle. There are too many forwards who can score, and when they don’t, the Oilers are also going to have to keep Toews and Makar on a leash, which no one else has been able to manage. Perhaps that will change when the series shifts to Edmonton and Jay Woodcroft can send out McDavid against other defensemen, but then he’ll be depending on his lesser forwards to watch over the Avs’ dynamic top pairing.
It should make for excellent television, and god bless Bednar for playing with all of his toys. What’s the point of being rich in speed and skill if you’re not going to push the pedal to the floor?
Of course, while the night saw hockey showcase how exciting it can be, the day showed how fucked up the culture is. The USHL, the country’s top junior league, saw its GMs vote Mitchell Miller their player of the year. If that name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s the fuckstick that was drafted by the Coyotes that they eventually had to renounce when it became public how Miller had bullied a disabled classmate.
Whether Miller was the best player in the league or not, it’s not exactly a great look to be holding this shitbird up as some sort of paragon of your league, wherever and whatever level it is. But it’s unlikely the GMs of said league care, if they even remember why Miller is in that league in the first place.
Hockey has never been able to take more than one step forward without stepping on a rake.