You had to notice the social sell.
Branded like a proper heavyweight title fight — and not a third-round series in a sport that romanticizes the concept of team and rarely focuses on the individual — the Western Conference Final between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche was presented as McDAVID vs. MacKINNON on the NHL's online platforms over the weekend.
All that was missing was DRAISAITL vs. MAKAR in smaller font below in an effort to highlight a featured showcase worth tuning in for on the undercard.
— NHL (@NHL) May 28, 2022
To steal from a sport built exclusively on the selling power of certain individuals who can make the masses pay attention says everything about the opportunity that has fallen in the NHL's lap ahead of a third round of what has been an exceptional and unbelievably entertaining Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point.
This is often the time momentum begins to sag, as the start of summer unconsciously reminds fans to disengage, especially as the active markets dwindle.
But this season, the conference final — or more specifically a matchup between two of the most aesthetically pleasing and entertaining teams in the league — could instead be can't-miss, making it the most exhilarating round to date.
That's because for the first time in forever in the NHL, the superstars have taken back control.
Which is exactly what the league needed.
One of the main issues for the NHL in building and selling its sport is that what tends to win at this time of the year are not the things that made fans fall in love with the sport in the first place.
Instead of superstars, it's scheme and structure.
And instead of goals, it's high-end goaltending.
It can be a contest of sucking the life out of the game when a trip to the Stanley Cup Final is within a few teams' grasps.
And while adding these winning elements have been crucial to the success of both Edmonton and Colorado, it's hard to imagine these teams helping themselves.
The fun stuff is in their DNAs.
Edmonton-Colorado may be the richest truly meaningful series we've ever seen in terms of total and evolved talent.
It can't possibly be about anything other than goals, highlights, and spectacular moments when Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, and Cale Makar share the same sheet of ice, not to mention the likes of Mikko Rantanen, Evander Kane, Gabriel Landeskog, Darnell Nurse, Devon Toews, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, among others.
With arguably four of the best five players in the world set to be featured in the same series, it truly does harken back to the days when high-end scoring talent trumped everything else.
Two former Hart Trophy winners on one side, and one of the most breathtaking postseason performers in recent history in addition to the likely Norris Trophy winner on the other.
Each at the peak of their powers right now.
For their part, McDavid and Draisaitl are authoring two of the most productive postseason runs in the history of the NHL. With 26 points apiece through 12 games, the Oilers' two prodigious talents are each 10 points shy of the highest-scoring postseason this century, and are well over halfway to Wayne Gretzky's record of 47 points in one playoff season in 1985. They have helped their linemate, Kane, reach a postseason-best 12 goals. Scoring once per game on average, Kane is within seven goals of matching the NHL record shared by Reggie Leach and Jari Kurri.
The numbers are a little more reasonable for MacKinnon, Makar, and the rest of the Avalanche, but they are also doing legendary things.
With eight goals and 13 points in 10 games, MacKinnon has strengthened his hold on a top five all-time points per game rate, while his teammate, Rantanen, sits ninth all-time. Meanwhile, Makar emerged from the first-round series victory over the Nashville Predators as the Conn Smythe Trophy favourite, and is one point shy of contributing a point per game from the blue line 45 games into his postseason career with 13 points in 10 outings this spring to match MacKinnon's output.
And for all the wonder McDavid has produced, MacKinnon might have the moment of the playoffs so far.
Nathan MacKinnon just did that. Go-ahead goal to complete the hat trick🥵 pic.twitter.com/tSP4VvmeYg
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) May 26, 2022
What's beautiful is that the stage is set up for these outputs to continue.
There's an argument that both the Oilers and Avs will feel liberated in a matchup with one another having just overwhelmed opponents who specialize in shutting down the opposition.
To borrow one more comparison from combat sports, would it be a surprise to see each team stand in the middle and trade? That is where they are most comfortable.
But what almost guarantees chaos is the perceived and shared weakness of both teams, which is their starting netminders.
Mike Smith and Darcy Kuemper have each had brilliant and tragic moments for the Oilers and Avalanche, respectively, but have been solid enough to carry their teams this far.
That said, the task each of them faces now should be nothing like the previous rounds.
Vegas has earmarked seven goals for Game 1, which could quickly prove to be an underestimation.
This season, the NHL stepped into a brand-new and legitimized world, having its new television partners — ESPN and TNT — in the United States take the product to a new level.
But it's one thing to be on the platforms.
It's another being the best product on the platforms.
Despite the NHL outperforming the NBA on many levels already this postseason, McDAVID vs. MacKINNON will still be missed by many. Two quality rounds isn't enough to alter behaviour, and the NBA (on ESPN) will continue to dominate from a ratings standpoint with its Finals spaced out across the entire month of June, cratering NHL viewership on nights when games are running head-to-head (versus TNT.)
But even with a dream matchup, and a superstar-laden former dynasty meeting a legendary franchise with the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics locking up for the first time in almost 60 years for the title, the far better product may not belong to the NBA, this time.
And the NHL may be able to compete for eyeballs.
And at the very least, own the off nights.
Of course, the trick is providing this type of product, or intrigue, on an annual basis. That's how you change behaviour.
But you have to start somewhere.
And in this moment, McDAVID vs. MacKINNON is exactly what the NHL needed.
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