The Colorado Avalanche are headed to the Western Conference Finals—for the first time in two decades—where they’ll face the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-seven series to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. (The Game 1 puck drops at 6 p.m. on May 31 in Denver; find the full series schedule here.) Some of you have been watching every minute of every game, waving your white pom-pom at Ball Arena or screaming at your TV because, yes, you can actually watch the Avs on the black box thanks to national coverage. Others may just be tuning in now that the Cup is within reach.
If you fall into that latter group, you have some catching up to do, so here’s a quick recap: To reach this point, the Avs swept the Nashville Predators in round one. Then they beat the St. Louis Blues in jaw-dropping fashion, with fourth-line forward Darren Helm scoring the game-winning—and series-ending—goal with just 5.6 seconds remaining in game six. Yes, you read that right.
— NHL (@NHL) May 28, 2022
Here are eight other things you should know. Because while it’s OK to be a bandwagon fan, you may at least want to pretend to know what’s going on.
Stanley Cup History
This is the first Western Conference Finals appearance for the Avs in 20 years. (Back in 2002, the team lost to the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.) But the Mile High City does have some experience hoisting the coveted Stanley Cup: The Avs claimed the championship in 1996—the team’s first season in the Mile High City—and 2001. It’s been a while since the team competed against the Oilers in the postseason, though; back in 1997, the Avs beat the Oilers in the conference semifinals in five games, and the Avs took the W in seven games in the conference quarterfinals in 1998.
MacKinnon vs. McDavid
The Western Conference Finals are a highly anticipated matchup between two of the best players in the league: Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon and Oilers forward/captain Connor McDavid. Both were number-one draft picks (MacKinnon in 2013, McDavid in 2015) and are known for their speed and puck-handling capabilities. McDavid has 26 points in the postseason, making him just the sixth player in NHL history to reach that tally through the first 12 games of the playoffs. MacKinnon has 13 points in 10 games, including his second career playoff hat trick in Game 5 against the Blues.
The Other High-Scoring Oiler
MacKinnon and McDavid may get top billing, but the Oilers have another offensive heavyweight in Leon Draisaitl, who is tied with his teammate for top-of-the-league points and assists in the postseason. Draisaitl’s fellow hockey players voted him the league’s best passer in a 2021-’22 season poll.
In Cale We Trust
Cale Makar is a defenseman, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he might be playing on the offensive line. It’s not an overstatement to call him one of the best at his position in the league. The 23-year-old leads NHL defenseman in goals this season—discounting ties, he’s 15th in the league for points overall—and is just the fifth defenseman in 30 years to score 28 goals or more in a season. He’s one of three finalists for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which recognizes the league’s top defenders, his second consecutive nomination. The Avs depend heavily on him: He skates the most minutes per game of any player on the team.
The Goalie Story
As Yahoo! Sports rightly put it, goalies Darcy Kuemper (Avalanche) and Mike Smith (Oilers) “have each had brilliant and tragic moments” for their respective teams. In Game 1 against the Calgary Flames, Smith allowed three goals on 10 shots in just six minutes and was pulled off the ice. Kuemper was hit in the face with a stick during the series against Nashville and missed two games; he has also faced the lowest shots against per game of any team in the playoffs. Overall, Kuemper has a .904 save percentage in the postseason, which Smith slightly edges out with a .927 save percentage, including two shutouts. Fun fact: Both Kuemper and Smith previously played for the Arizona Coyotes.
The Water Bottle Incident
Avalanche second-line center Nazem Kadri has a lot of fans—and quite a few haters. In Game 3 against the St. Louis Blues, he collided with Blues defenseman Calle Rosen, causing him to run into and a St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington. Binnington missed the rest of the series with a knee injury. Kadri wasn’t penalized on the ice or afterward for the hit, but Binnington wasn’t happy; the Blues goaltender tossed an empty water bottle at him during a post-game interview. Following the game, Kadri, who is Muslim, received a number of racially motivated online threats from Blues fans. (His wife, Ashley, shared on social media that he received similar racist messages after he was suspended for eight games last postseason.) In Game 4, Kadri was cross-checked by Blues forward David Perron, who was fined $5,000 by the NHL for the hit. That didn’t slow the 31-year-old Kadri down: He notched his first career playoff hat trick in the Game 4 win by the Avalanche.
Experience at the Helm
Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic knows a thing or two about playoff pressure: He led the Avalanche to both of its Stanley Cup victories and served as captain of the team for 17 seasons. He retired in 2009 (his number 19 jersey hangs in Ball Arena’s rafters) and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012. Head coach Jared Bednar has led the team since August 2016. He’s known as one of the NHL’s best-dressed coaches. More importantly, he’s been behind the bench during the team’s third-longest run of playoff appearances in franchise history.
While we don’t generally rely on data projections, we do like what FiveThirtyEight is predicting. Before Game 1, the site is giving the Avs a 69 percent chance of making the Stanley Cup Finals and a 43 percent chance of winning the whole thing. A couple of other stats worth noting: The Avalanche have the best power-play percentage in the playoffs (meaning they’re good at taking advantage and scoring when the other team is down a man), while the Oilers boast the highest number of goals per game in the playoffs.