It was at the world hockey championships two years ago. Hughes said McDavid was the best player he had ever seen.
“He’s crazy good,” Hughes recalled after the morning skate on Wednesday. “He was really good. I think he was sick, too. He’s going to do his thing tonight and we’ve just got to focus on us.”
The Canucks were the better team on the opening night of the National Hockey League season. But the Edmonton Oilers had the best players. Draisaitl was a beast, dominating with the puck as he set up two goals and scored another. And McDavid, returning from last spring’s serious knee injury, burst through the Canucks’ defence to score the late winner in a 3-2 game in which the Oilers were outshot 27-14 over the final 45 minutes.
Asked in the morning if McDavid had beaten him one-on-one on the big ice in Denmark two years ago, a month before the Canucks gleefully snatched Hughes with the seventh pick of the NHL draft, the 19-year-old defenceman said he couldn’t remember.
But he’ll remember McDavid zipping between him and defence partner Chris Tanev on the deciding goal with 5:23 remaining.
It was a sobering moment on an otherwise extremely impressive night for Hughes, the dynamic rookie-of-the-year candidate who logged 23:07 of ice time and controlled several shifts in the offensive zone.
“I was pretty happy with my game,” he said. “I thought it was a pretty good start; I’ve just got to keep getting better.
“It was kind of a weird play (on the winning goal). I felt like I got my stick on the puck there and he got a good bounce. You know he’s got a lot of speed and he’s coming at you. Honestly, I didn’t really expect anything else from him.”
Hughes and Tanev were looking to change when Brandon Sutter played the puck out of the Canucks’ zone with the score tied 2-2. But Oilers defenceman Matt Benning wedged it against the sideboards to create a turnover in the neutral zone. Draisaitl quickly fed it to McDavid. The turnover caught Hughes and Tanev spread slightly wide and McDavid roofed the puck over goalie Jacob Markstrom.
“In hindsight, I wished I’d just iced it,” Sutter said. “Great players are going to make great plays, but it’s still frustrating.”
Certainly, the result was frustrating for Vancouver. But the way the Canucks played, pinning the Oilers in their zone for extended spells after a leaden opening 10 minutes by Vancouver, was impressive and indicative of how the team has been reconstructed.
Heavy wingers like Tanner Pearson, J.T. Miller, Josh Leivo and Micheal Ferland gave the Oilers a lot of trouble down low. Pearson, whose tip of Tyler Myers’ point shot put Vancouver ahead 2-1 at 9:41 of the third period, registered 11 shots on net.
The Canucks’ robust work on the boards left a lot of space higher in the offensive zone for Hughes, Myers and Alex Edler to exploit. Edler’s point shot pinged off the crossbar behind Oilers goalie Mike Smith in the final second.
“As soon as we got pucks deep, I think we were playing more of a heavy game,” Sutter said. “We hung on to the puck down low and got some chances off that. Our wingers were much heavier on pucks, we got pucks back to the D and the D got lots of shots. We had some flow going.”
Among the Canucks’ own young offensive stars – Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat – Boeser was the only one to make the scoresheet, teeing up Edler’s second-period goal. Vancouver’s power play looked dangerous but finished 0-for-4. And while Markstrom made some strong saves, he spilled a generous rebound that led to Draisaitl’s first-period goal.
“At the end of the day, their star players came through for them and scored some big goals and made some big plays, and that was the deciding factor,” Horvat said. “Honestly, for 50 minutes of that game, I thought we were the dominant team out there and played really well.
“(But) it’s not a moral victory. If you lose, you lose. We have a veteran team that knows how to win and wants to win and doesn’t accept anything less than winning.”
That would be another new thing about the Canucks.
• Adam Gaudette, who earned a spot on the opening roster at the expense of incumbent Sven Baertschi, was the forward healthy-scratched by Vancouver coach Travis Green. . . The Canucks head to Banff for two days of work and play before visiting the Calgary Flames on Saturday.