Healthy Connor McDavid lifting Oilers with return to dominant self

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid talks about how his teams power play and penalty kill was good in their win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There are between 50 and 53 games left in the season for most teams, and Connor McDavid has finally broached the top five in league scoring with 39 points. He has climbed to No. 3, just behind the Tampa duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who lead with 42 points each.

Here’s the wager: You can have the field in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. Or you can take Connor McDavid.

Which bet are you taking?

“I feel good,” McDavid finally said, after successive questions about the illness he carried through the first 20-some games — and the effect it had on his game — had reached a tedious ending.

He simply was not going to take the bait on discussing how sick he’d been. It was the same way when his coaches had talked about resting him. He would have no part of that either.

“We discussed it, but the horse wants to run,” head coach Todd McLellan shrugged. “So, let him run.”

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In one dominant four-point night at Columbus Tuesday, McDavid moved from 11th to third in the NHL scoring race. He had six points on a just-completed three-game road trip (which included being shut out 1-0 at Toronto), and for the first time since opening night of the season the Oilers captain truly looked like the player who won both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies in 2016-17.

“To me his approach has been the same. He hasn’t wavered, or gotten frustrated, but when he’s going the team goes. He’s the heart of our team,” said Mark Letestu, who acknowledges the extra gear. “He drives us. When he’s going like that it’s certainly easier to go strap ‘em on and go play as hard as he does.”

McDavid had a flu, and then some strep throat. Then another flu. So he was weak, and unable to get the kind of sleep necessary to run the most efficient hockey skating machine in the word today. He played through it without missing a game — and somehow remained at a point-per-game pace — but only now that we see him reach his familiar level do we realize how far below his best he’s been so far in 2017-18.

“It took a lot out of him,” McLellan said. “There probably wasn’t enough made of the first illness. The second one was just a common one that everyone else had, but you combine the two and it takes a little while.”

The Oilers are all but sunk in the race for the playoffs, given a 3.9 per cent chance of making the dance, according to the web site Sports Club Stats, prior to beating Columbus. But if there is one player on earth who can lead a team to make up seven points and leapfrog six teams, it is this captain.

He didn’t have a point in Toronto, but left the Leafs players in awe.

“First of all, no one can skate that fast, but at full speed it’s tough to stickhandle that quickly and make those plays that he does,” said Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner. “I don’t think there is another guy in the league like that.”

Added goalie Curtis McElhinney: “When he’s 200 feet away and he starts building speed it’s just like a freight train coming, and you know he has the ability to just dipsy-doodle and just walk right through guys. It’s pretty impressive, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it.”

The rising tide lifts all boats, and on his best three-game stint of the season McDavid’s teammates scored 13 goals between Montreal and Columbus, while ringing four posts and getting thwarted by McElhinney in Toronto.

“It’s a funny game sometimes,” mused Letestu. “You get two Vezina winners (Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky) and you chase them before the third period. Then you can’t buy a goal (against a backup) in Toronto.”

Still, this Oilers team is clearly a different animal with McDavid at his best.

“He goes back up to 20 minutes a night,” explained McLellan of McDavid’s ice time. “There were nights when he was down to 15, 16, 17 minutes — so he’s on the ice more. When your energy level is up you can play hard both ways. You can win races that you normally win. You can more out of hour shift later.

“He’s always played hard and fast late into a shift, at 40, 45 seconds, where a lot of guys tend to fade. So that all adds up to him having a better game.”

“I remember games in junior in the playoffs, you’d play 29 minutes,” McDavid said. “You play a lot of minutes, you feel very engaged in the game. I like that.”

He wouldn’t say he’s watching the Art Ross race yet.

But he won it last year, and winning it again this season might be exactly what it takes for McDavid to drag this team back to contention.

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