CALGARY — The truly great players have that sense for the occasion. The ability to rise to the stage; to be the best player in the game when the most sets of eyes are upon them.
It’s too early to say where Connor McDavid fits into that scenario, but give the lad credit. He walked into his first Battle of Alberta on Hockey Night in Canada and gave hockey fans the game of his young professional career, a three-point night and his inaugural NHL first star performance in a 5-2 Edmonton Oilers victory.
McDavid was fabulous at the Saddledome Saturday with two goals and an assist, a spectacular paddle save from Jonas Hiller away from recording the hat trick.
“Just getting more and more comfortable. I mean, it’s only been five games,” he said, perhaps the only voice in Calgary that wasn’t gushing over the caliber of his game. “When the team has success, then some individuals start to have some success. Feels pretty good to get the first (win).”
The Calgary Flames, it must be said, are a train wreck right now. They committed more own-zone giveaways in the opening five minutes Saturday than we saw in entire games last April and May.
But this night wasn’t about the Flames. It was about getting our first look at the star we’ve been told so much about — and an Oilers team that might finally be on the right path — on a night where the flashes of McDavid’s brilliance we’ve seen thus far played out over entire shifts. McDavid had the puck on a string, and as an 18-year-old he was the best player on the ice, hands down.
“That was the best game yet from Connor,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. “He made an impact throughout the night. Had an impact on the score sheet and probably could have had even more of an impact with some of the chances he had.”
McDavid has arrived in the National Hockey League so intent on earning McLellan’s trust — aiming to prove he can handle himself defensively — that he’s not emptied the chambers on offence the way fans had hoped. Truly, when people say “it’s a process,” this is what they mean.
“I thought he let himself go. Kind of gave himself permission,” assessed McLellan, who earns his first win as Edmonton’s head coach. “Sometimes you have to do that to get after it. As a young player you don’t have to give way to the veterans all the time. You’re allowed to go out and take charge and I thought he did that.”
Did he ever.
McDavid walked through the Calgary defence more than once, dancing through the offensive zone with the puck on his stick more than he had in the previous four games combined. He scored his first goal by deftly rifling a shot through the shin pads of defenceman Kris Russell and past Hiller, then buried the final goal of the game on a luscious cross-crease pass from Taylor Hall (one goal, three points).
In between, Edmonton got goals from each of their four No. 1 overall draft picks — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Hall and McDavid — surely the first team to lay claim to that feat. That, of course, is both good news and bad.
“A lot of first tonight, for a bunch of guys,” McDavid said. “I don’t think anyone expected the Oilers to have trouble offensively, but that’s been the case. It feels good to break out.”
“He gets a lot of confidence from that game, coming into a tough building like this,” said Hall of McDavid. As a team, Edmonton has suffered from what ailed McDavid, concentrating so much on team defence that they forgot about team offence.
“Tonight we just went for it,” Hall said. “We didn’t play not to lose, and we weren’t scared to win. It seemed like we’ve been dumping a lot of pucks, playing in very straight lines. Tonight we had a lot of creativity in our game, at the right times. That’s what you want to see.”
While Cam Talbot continues to give Edmonton steady, accountable goaltending, Hiller made a few highlight reel stops that kept this from becoming a true blowout.
Edmonton is only 1-4, and plays in Vancouver on Sunday. There were many good signs here, but as Hall points out, “It’s not like we won the Cup.”
“A win in Vancouver would do a lot for us, but it would do a lot for our fans. Get them excited when we get back to Rexall Place.”