Connor McDavid has reached new heights in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Same goes for Nathan MacKinnon.
Despite the good vibes of conquering past disappointments and silencing critics, both superstars — with 11 career individual NHL awards between them — are far from satisfied with the task only half complete.
McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers and MacKinnon’s Colorado Avalanche open the Western Conference final Tuesday in Denver after slaying some of their spring demons.
The Oilers had reached the second round just once in McDavid’s career prior to this month, while MacKinnon and the Avalanche failed to advance beyond the same stage each of the last three post-seasons.
What a difference a couple weeks can make.
Edmonton is now in the third round for the first time since 2006. Colorado’s last trip to hockey’s final four was all the way back in 2002.
“You really have to enjoy the journey,” MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick at the 2013 draft, said after his team beat the St. Louis Blues in six games to move on. “The job’s not finished, but that’s a great accomplishment for us. We’ve been (through) some dark times.
“Nice to get over this hump.”
The first overall selection in 2015 had similar thoughts on the heels of his club’s impressive five-game disposal of the favoured Calgary Flames in the first playoff Battle of Alberta in 31 years.
“We feel like we’re a good team,” McDavid said. “We’re playing good hockey … it’s only gonna get harder.
“We’ve had great belief in our group for a long time. Even when we were going through some tough times, we stuck with it.”
The tough times in Edmonton are well-documented for a once-proud franchise that won the Cup five times between 1984 and 1990.
The Oilers missed the playoffs 10 straight seasons after falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the 2006 final.
Edmonton also made the second round just once in six pervious campaigns with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl beginning in 2015, including three springs devoid altogether of playoff hockey.
And even more recently, the Oilers were in danger of missing this post-season dance before interim head coach Jay Woodcroft replaced the fired Dave Tippett in February and led the team to the NHL’s second-best record over the 38 remaining games to finish No. 2 in the Pacific Division.
The Avalanche — Cup winners in 1996 and 2001 — have had more regular-season success in recent years, but three straight second-round exits weighed on an uber-talented group that also includes Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar.
MacKinnon and Landeskog have been in Colorado for the tough times when the team was at the bottom of the standings, the good moments, and the heartbreak.
“Our team has changed a lot over the last handful of years … taking ownership of this team and what we’re doing,” said Landeskog, the Avalanche captain. “Rewarding getting over this hump, but at the same time, we’ve got a big goal in mind.
“I feel like the best is ahead.”
Fans will be expecting just that from two rosters loaded with speed, skill and lethal power plays.
McDavid and Draisaitl lead the post-season with an astounding 26 points each in 12 games, while Evander Kane tops the goals race with 12.
On the other side, MacKinnon, who’s tied alongside Makar with 13 points, took over Colorado’s series against St. Louis for an Avalanche group that often looks like its been shot out of a cannon at puck drop.
“Usually the best players in the world get really geared up when they’re playing the other best players in the world,” Woodcroft said. “We’re in a business where naturally everybody is ultracompetitive.
“You want to show well.”
Colorado finished the regular season second in the overall standings with 119 points, 15 clear of Edmonton.
All three of the teams’ meetings came in the last six weeks of the schedule, with the Avalanche winning in a shootout and overtime, and the Oilers securing the only regulation victory.
“The pace in those games was excellent,” said Woodcroft, whose team combined with the Flames for an outrageous 45 goals in their five-game series. “The speed and skill of the players involved speaks for themselves.
“I’ve learned in this playoffs not to try and predict anything.”
But what each second-round series also showed was that both the Oilers and Avalanche are about more than just elite, high-end talent. Edmonton got big performances from players like Kane and Zach Hyman, who scored six times against Calgary, while Darren Helm bagged Colorado’s dramatic late winner in Game 6 versus St. Louis.
“It takes everybody up and down the lineup,” McDavid said. “It takes an absolute army.”
“We’re certainly driven by our leaders,” Woodcroft added. “But I can tell you those guys are great teammates, and they believe in their teammates. We would not be where we’re at right now unless we had great contributions from everybody on our roster.”
Edmonton’s coach said his team’s performances against the Avalanche in that trio of games gave a group still trying to find its footing a new level of confidence.
“It showed that we have what it takes to play with the best in the league,” he said. “It comes down to an extra play made either way. We know the challenge that’s before us.
“The league has narrowed again.”
And the margins are only going to get tighter for two sets of players in uncharted territory.
“We have some players who are playing in their first playoff games,” Woodcroft said. “And then you have (goaltender) Mike Smith, who’s 40 years old. He’s been in the conference finals twice in his career. That’s how special it is to be in this position. We’re aware of that. It doesn’t happen every year.
“We want to take full advantage.”
Because neither team knows when a similar opportunity will knock again.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press