Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9, second, Pacific Division) vs. San Jose Sharks (46-29-7, third, Pacific Division)
Why you have to watch: Connor McDavid -- do we need to say more? The 20-year-old phenom won the scoring title with ease. His 100 points (30-70) were 11 ahead of C Sidney Crosby and RW Patrick Kane (89 points apiece). McDavid not only claimed the Art Ross Trophy but will also win the Hart Trophy as MVP. ... McDavid ended the regular season on a 14-game point streak; he's on absolute fire as he begins his first NHL playoffs. If you were a neutral hockey fan and were given the chance to attend any first-round series, Edmonton would be your choice, just to see Crosby's successor as the NHL's No. 1 player begin his postseason career. ... Now, McDavid isn't the only reason to watch this series. Oh, no. How about Todd McLellan coaching against his former team? The humble McLellan will downplay it, but let's not kid ourselves: His mutual split out of San Jose two years ago left behind some tender feelings. This series will be beyond huge for him. ... The Sharks ended the regular season by dropping nine of 13 games, fading out of first place in the division, suffering key injuries and really making you wonder if last year's Cup finalists are in the right place entering the first round. But they're a veteran team, last year's run has emboldened their belief, and this will be a mighty test for the young Oilers, who are finally back in the playoffs for the first time since losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.
Head to head: The Oilers won the season series 3-1-1 and, more importantly, beat the Sharks twice in the final two weeks, 3-2 at home on March 30 and 4-2 at San Jose on Thursday. ... SAP Center, aka the Shark Tank, is an intimidating place for visiting teams, so spiriting away home ice was no small thing for an Oilers team that is playing its first playoff game in 11 years. ... Speaking of head-to-head -- while D Brent Burns is a Norris Trophy candidate with an electrifying tool set, Olympic gold medalist D Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be the man in the spotlight for Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, who no doubt will want to deploy Vlasic as much as possible in a shutdown role versus McDavid's top line. That is the matchup that is more or less going to decide the entire series. Vlasic is among the best defensive defensemen in the NHL.
Injury fallout: Where to start for the Sharks? Their top two centers missed the end of the regular season. Joe Thornton suffered a knee injury April 2 in Vancouver and missed the final three games, and Logan Couture took a puck to the face on March 25 and didn't play in the final seven. Thornton insists he'll be ready for the playoffs -- and given how he played through a separated shoulder during the 2011 Western Conference finals, nobody has ever doubted his toughness. But how impactful will he be when he's not 100 percent? The health and effectiveness of San Jose's top two centers looms as a dominating story line. ... Meanwhile, there are no injuries of note for the Oilers, which in itself is an important edge at the onset.
Goalie advantage: San Jose's Martin Jones and Edmonton's Cam Talbot have taken similar career paths. They're both former backups who got to learn from some great ones (for Jones, it was Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings; for Talbot, Henrik Lundqvist with the New York Rangers) before blossoming on their own as No. 1 workhorses. Jones cemented his status with a terrific performance last spring while leading the Sharks to the Stanley Cup finals. He has given Sharks fans cause for concern, however, with his struggles over the final month -- which mirrored his team's play. ... Talbot tied for the league lead with 42 wins and easily started the most games, 73. What a year. On the other hand, some fear he could be in jeopardy of burnout. ... These are two young starters with similar talent -- although Jones needs to get back to his normal self after his late-season struggles.
Coaching advantage: McLellan, who deserves to be in the Jack Adams Award conversation, spent seven seasons behind the Sharks bench, and you can't tell me there isn't some form of advantage knowing how some of those veteran players operate. DeBoer has been a perfect fit in San Jose, leading the Sharks over the hump and getting to the Cup finals last year while also building a great rapport with the veteran core.
Prediction: The Sharks' late-season fade, plus the health status of Thornton and Couture can't be overlooked. Nor can San Jose's huge edge in experience. But I see an Oilers team that took the right steps down the stretch run and looks poised entering the playoffs. Oilers in 6.