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Avalanche, Oilers finally meet in battle of red-hot teams, superstars

EDMONTON – A quirk in the NHL schedule has provided the league with quite a late-season gift.

The Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers have been two of the best four teams in the NHL since mid-November. They boast two of the top three or four players in the world, not to mention both sides featuring a robust group of supporting stars.

They are two of the most exciting teams in the sport, but they will meet for the first time this season Saturday night. These two Stanley Cup contenders will meet three times in the Avalanche’s final 15 games, with critical standings points and multiple major individual trophies at the forefront of the hype matching for these matchups.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Avalanche forward Zach Parise said. “Just the talent level that’s going to be on the ice, it’s going to be through the roof. You want to see where your team is at, so you play against the best and see where we’re at and what we need to get better at. For both teams, it is a good way to measure that.”

Nov. 11 was the day the Avs got run out of Ball Arena in embarrassing fashion by the St. Louis Blues, an 8-2 defeat that left Jared Bednar seething in his postgame interview and the Avs with an 8-5-0 record. That same day was a positive one for Edmonton. The Oilers won for only the third time in their first 13 contests — a 3-9-1 start left them in 31st place in the league standings.

Since that day, both teams have torn through the league with a couple of minor bumps along the way. Edmonton is a league-best 37-12-2 since then, for an NHL-best .745 points percentage. Colorado is fourth at .676, with a league-leading 207 goals in 54 games.

“It’s a fun matchup for the fans obviously,” Avs star Nathan MacKinnon said. “We’re still trying to climb up the conference and our division. It’s going to be a tough game. They’re an awesome team. It’s always fun to have big challenges like this.”

An obvious storyline will be MacKinnon, the league’s leading scorer, against Connor McDavid, who has been on a tear to get within striking distance of him and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross Trophy race. MacKinnon has a career-high 115 points, and is six shy of the Colorado single-season season.

Since that day in November, MacKinnon has a league-leading 100 points in 54 games, while McDavid is second with 96 in 51 contests. The NHL hasn’t had a legit race for the scoring title since 2017-18, when McDavid netted 18 in his final nine games to outscore Claude Giroux 108-102. Before that, we have to go back to 2014-15 for an Art Ross battle that went down to the final day.

“I think most importantly, if you keep 97 off the scoresheet, you have a good chance to win the game,” Parise said. “As a teammate, you want to see your teammate do well and win everything.”

McDavid has won the Art Ross in five of the past seven seasons. He’s also won the Hart Trophy as league MVP three times. A sixth Art Ross would tie McDavid with Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe for the second-most all-time behind Wayne Gretzky’s 10. A fourth Hart would tie him with Eddie Shore for third behind Gretzky (nine) and Howe (six).

MacKinnon is vying for his first major individual trophy. He’s finished second twice and third once. Toss in Toronto’s Auston Matthews and his run at 70-plus goals, and there are four fantastic candidates for the Hart, and three guys battling for the Art Ross.

There’s one trophy MacKinnon has won that McDavid has not — the big one at the end of the season — and both of these teams fancy themselves as top Stanley Cup contenders in 2024. These three games could be a Western Conference Final preview.

The Avs will have Parise, Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen back in the lineup after all three missed the first two games of this road trip through Western Canada. For all of the firepower the Avalanche has, the Oilers are one of the few teams that boast a similar collection of skill and talent.

“We have to be very careful against these guys,” MacKinnon said. “They have so many weapons, obviously the best player in the league. There’s a lot of guys who are very, very good over there that we have to keep an eye on.”

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