For the second time in three seasons, the Edmonton Oilers have earned a shot at the Western Conference crown, just four wins separating them from a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

They’ve been here before. Two years ago, Connor McDavid’s club stumbled off a cliff just as it reached this summit. After a hard-fought, seven game battle with the Los Angeles Kings, and a five-game grudge match with the rival Calgary Flames, a painfully brief season-ending sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche snuffed out Edmonton’s Cup dreams just as they started to feel real.

Last year, the pain came even quicker. The Oilers made it only as far as the second round, and then came that familiar feeling, the club ousted again by the eventual champs, this time the Vegas Golden Knights.

Now, Edmonton arrives at the precipice of greatness once again, with another juggernaut before them. And in a bit of hockey-god poetry — the type of stars-aligning that seems reserved for the all-time greats — McDavid’s squad must now try to beat a Dallas Stars team so dominant, they got here by walking all over the former champs who ended the last two Oilers seasons.

On the other side of the sheet, though, the matchup is no less daunting. 

Should the Stars make it out of the Western Conference Final and into that coveted final round, they’ll do so having navigated about as difficult a path through the post-season as one could plot out: a seven-game grind to dethrone the reigning champions; a follow-up six-game tilt against Nathan MacKinnon, in peak form, and his high-flying Avalanche; and now a date with McDavid, one of the greatest pure offensive forces the game has ever seen, surrounded by the best supporting cast he’s ever had.

It’s a tough one to stomach for either fanbase. But it’s a necessary step for both squads to get to what lies beyond — the chance to claim the crown jewel of a new era: the first Stanley Cup raised by the Stars in 25 years, or the first raised by the Oilers in more than three decades.

(image)

Head-to-head record regular season:

Oilers: 1-2-0
Stars: 2-0-1

Oilers’ Unsung Hero: Evan Bouchard

He’s far from an under-the-radar contributor, but with so much of the Oilers-related focus often directed at McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, the rest of the forward corps, or who’s manning the cage, it’s worth pausing to recognize just how essential defender Evan Bouchard has been in pulling his club into the third round. Through 12 games, the 24-year-old’s amassed five goals and 20 points for Edmonton, tops among all defencemen in these 2024 playoffs and third-most among all skaters overall. But beyond just the size of that sum, it’s the manner in which he’s contributed that’s made him so valuable to all these Oilers do, Bouchard coming up particularly clutch in these playoffs with a team-leading three game-winners so far.

The most significant role Bouchard’s played, though, is ensuring the Oilers’ power play remains lethal as the stakes have continued to ramp up. That was the story against Vancouver right to the end, the Oilers stacking six man-advantage goals on the Canucks in seven games, the last winding up as the winner in Game 7. And Bouchard was in the thick of it every step of the way, logging more power-play time than anyone else on the team, continuing to make his presence known as one of the club’s top power-play scorers — and registering the primary helper on that series-finale clincher. Even beyond the sequences that wind up with Bouchard’s name on the scoresheet, it’s simply the threat of what he can do that makes him vital to Edmonton’s power play, his all-world point shot keeping defences honest and pulling just enough focus away from the top unit’s twin MVP talents. 

The Oilers won’t have too many areas in which they hold an edge over Dallas, but special teams is one, and Bouchard enters the series as the highest-scoring defender on either side.