EDMONTON — As the Connor McDavid legend grows, with five points in a 5-2 win over Toronto Thursday, the impression inside the visitor’s locker room stays pretty much the same every time.
“I’ve heard a lot of things about him,” marveled Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner. “But actually seeing him play? He’s pretty good.”
Pretty good? Yes, McDavid was “pretty good” Thursday with two goals and three assists, for season totals of 9-15-24 in 19 games. It was his first career five-point night.
Surely, McDavid is not as consistent night-in and night-out as he will be one day. But when he’s on, he’s the best player on either team by a wide margin — at 19 years of age.
“You just watch the stuff he can do,” continued Gardiner, who was credited with a goal kicked into Edmonton’s net by an Oilers player. “The little things most players don’t see. He’s right up there with the best guys in the league for sure. Such a young guy, to be this good is surprising for sure.”
McDavid opened the game with a breakaway goal just 3:29 into the evening. Then he went to work with trigger man Jordan Eberle on a pair of goals that gave Edmonton a 3-1 cushion late in the middle period.
After a late, fluky Leafs goal left the score at 3-2 after 40 minutes, McDavid dominated the third, scoring once and setting up Eberle for his first career hat trick — an empty netter.
As we get to know McDavid, we would have bet our laptop that he was passing to the veteran Eberle with goalie Jonathan Bernier on the Toronto bench. Even though it is quite clear McDavid could have made the first hat trick of his young career happen.
“I fully expected Connor to shoot. He had two goals too,” said Eberle, who collected his first career hat trick after 17 two-goal games along the way. “He made an unselfish play. Not much more you can say about the kid.”
Said Leafs coach Mike Babcock: “If you’re Eberle and you have some skill, you’re pretty thankful you’re playing with him.”
Babcock couldn’t possibly get any more out of this rag-tag Maple Leafs lineup. With injured veterans Nazen Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Jared Cowen — and Dion Phaneuf having been traded away on Tuesday — Babcock dressed a Leafs roster that came in at just under $30 million.
They outworked Edmonton for the entire first period and parts of the second, and lost in the McDavid-Eberle tale was a stellar night in goal by Cam Talbot, who stopped 34 shots and was only beaten by Josh Leivo’s lovely snipe.
But this Leafs lineup couldn’t simply weather what the McDavid-Eberle-Benoit Pouliot line brought to the table. Pouliot had four assists, and together the line had 13 points.
The irony is that Eberle was injured coming out of training camp, and only returned to action the game after McDavid went out with his broken clavicle. They’ve only been together since the All-Star break ended, and have arguably been the most dangerous duo in hockey.
“I think we’re doing a good job of understanding each other,” McDavid said. “We’ve only played a few games together, but the chemistry has been building a little bit, and we saw that tonight.”
McDavid was bummed about missing Edmonton’s visit to Toronto earlier this season, and had this game circled for some time.
“It’s pretty special — looking across and seeing that logo during warm-up kind of gave me the chills,” said McDavid, who grew up a rabid Leafs fan. “So it was special to have a game like that against them.
“We needed this. There was a lot of pressure on us coming in, playing against a team that was desperate and missing a lot of guys. They played a great game in terms of structure and not giving up too much. But it was a big night for us to start off the home stand.”
Edmonton plays their next five games at home, a chance to perhaps climb out of the National Hockey League’s basement for good. The Leafs, meanwhile, laid claim to the 30th and final spot in the standings, the first time they’ve been 30th this late in a season since the 1996-97 campaign.
Toronto never made a selection until round three of the 1997 draft. This season, it’s all about one of Auston Matthews or the two Finns — Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi — one of whom will join this bare-bones rebuild in Toronto.
They’ll talk up whomever that player happens to be starting next June, but as the Leafs boarded their charter for a Saturday tilt in Vancouver against the Canucks, there was only one player’s name on anyone’s lips.
You can likely guess who that was.
“He’s an electric player,” said Toronto defenceman Matt Hunwick. “He can flat out skate, he can carry the puck and make plays — and he does it all with his eyes up and his feet moving. He’s very tough to check.
“With space, without space — he’s good. We saw it first-hand tonight.”