The puck stops here: way out of the west can rest on goalkeepers

DENVER (AP) — In addition to the game between Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, there is another just as intriguing: the goalkeepers responsible for stopping two of the best goal scorers in the world.

They’re all up for the challenge, too, as the Western Conference finals kick off Tuesday night in Denver.

Colorado goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper called the prospect of going up against the elusive McDavid a “fun challenge.” At 40, Edmonton netminder Mike Smith is just enjoying this opportunity.

“You gain experiences along the way as you get older and older,” Smith said Monday on the eve of Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. “They can only help you in these kinds of situations.”

By taking on MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and defender Cale Makar in training each week, Kuemper has prepared to see the speed of McDavid & Co. who rushes at him.

The same goes for Smith’s preparation for MacKinnon. Smith has seen it all – every kind of bad shot – from McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

“He brings so much energy and so much passion into the game,” McDavid said of his goalkeeper. “It definitely makes you want to play hard for him.”

Smith enjoys every step of the journey to the Stanley Cup. He also plays well, stopping 381 of the 411 shots so far in the playoffs.

“Your chances of reaching the conference finals don’t come around every day,” Smith said. “It’s something you want to take advantage of when you get here and prepare yourself to try and get to the ultimate spot and that’s in the final.”

It was a bumpy road to the West Finals for Kuemper, the 32-year veteran who was taken over from Arizona last summer. He set a career high with 37 regular season wins, but suffered a blow in Game 3 of the Nashville series after he caught a stick by his eye between the bars of his mask (the swelling is gone).

Now he signs McDavid.

“Obviously he’s an electric, dynamic player,” said Kuemper, who has an average of 2.44 goals against in the playoffs. “It’s a fun challenge. You want to compete against the best players in the world and you’re looking forward to it.”

MACKINON VS. MCDAVID

Both McDavid and MacKinnon weren’t really interested in talking about their upcoming matchup.

“They’re a good team there,” McDavid said when asked about MacKinnon. “They’ve got some real special players and they’re deep all over the place.”

MacKinnon echoed that thought when thinking about McDavid.

“They’re deeper than teams give them credit,” MacKinnon said. “They wouldn’t be where they are without the full team effort.”

HIGH praise

Edmonton’s front office executive, Ken Holland, thinks highly of his general manager counterpart on this series, Joe Sakic, and the work he’s done to put this Avalanche team together.

“One of the best in the industry,” Holland said.

The respect is mutual. Holland was the general manager in Detroit during Sakic’s Hall of Fame career with the Avalanche.

“It’s been around for a long time,” Sakic said. “He did a great job.”

PAST HISTORY

It’s been so long since Colorado and Edmonton met in the postseason: Makar and defender Bowen Byram weren’t even born yet.

Colorado and Edmonton have met twice before, with the Avalanche winning the series of the 1997 conference semifinals 4-1. The following postseason, the Oilers won in Game 7 in the quarterfinals.

“The Avs used to have some really good teams, they won Cups, conference championships — everything,” Byram said. “I feel like everyone knows that series.”

TRADE HISTORY

In 2019, the Avalanche signed longtime defender Tyson Barrie to Toronto as part of a deal that brought in Nazem Kadri. It was a business decision as Makar was about to arrive on site.

Now with the Oilers, Barrie is an integral part of their success.

“It’s pretty well documented how much loved (Barrie) was in this city and in the locker room — and the same with (Kadri),” said Avalanche captain Gabriel Landesog. “He (Baraie) had a lot of success here with us. We’re looking forward to playing with him – or against him, I’d say.”

OVERCOMING ADDITIONALITY

The Avalanche lost in the second round in three consecutive playoff appearances before breaking through against St. Louis this season.

The Oilers lost in the first round last season — and the qualifying round the season before — before beating the Los Angeles Kings in seven games in the opening round and Calgary in five.

“You have to go through some scars to find some growth,” said Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft. “It’s not always fun, but at some point your team’s fabric is tested. One of the messages we give to our team is the old adage that the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”

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