EDMONTON — “You know he’s out there. You know he’s coming.”
“It was just a high flip. I knew he was coming, and I was waiting for it to land,” Braun replayed. “I probably should have whacked it instead of trying to tie him up.
“It’s a tough play. I’ve got to maybe box him out a little more.”
Coulda, shoulda and woulda.
Those three words are inextricably linked to McDavid, and those whose fortunes cross the Edmonton Oilers‘ magnificent young prodigy, the NHL’s leading scorer with five goals and 17 points in his first seven games this season.
Off and on through a career that began with the San Jose Sharks, Braun has played the Coyote to McDavid’s Road Runner. And he’s had his share of success against McDavid, like when Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic limited McDavid to just two goals and four points in a six-game playoff series won by Edmonton in 2017.
Then, there are nights like Wednesday, where McDavid racked up five points, the game-turning goal being the one Braun was standing in the dressing room describing in detail after a 6-3 loss.
“He’s had some special goals against me over the years. A lot of them you’ll probably see on highlight reels for years to come, which is unfortunate,” lamented Braun, a super good sport to stand in and talk about a life of matching up against McDavid, first in San Jose and now as a Philadelphia Flyer. “Yeah, you know, it hurts because when you shut a guy like that down all night, you leave the rink and you just feel great about yourself. Tonight it hurts. He was hot tonight, and put up a lot of points.
“I don’t even know what he ended up with.”
Five, to be exact.
The Oilers ran their hot start to 6-1, beating Philadelphia 6-3 in a weird one. Midway through the game the Flyers were on a 27-6 run on the shot clock, yet trailed 2-1 as the six-foot-seven Mikko Koskinen stood tall in Edmonton’s nets — both literally and figuratively.
“He was the first, second and third star,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett would say post-game. “He was the only reason we won.”
The shots on goal would favour Philly 52-22, the shot attempts an astounding 85-37 by game’s end. But Edmonton would stretch a 2-1 lead into an unsurmountable 6-1 advantage, a tide that began with McDavid’s marvellous work, as he blazed through the neutral zone to catch up with Braun, like a special teams burner closing on a guy making a fair catch.
McDavid picked Braun’s pocket, then rifled a close-in shot past goalie Carter Hart.
“Flip plays are hard to play for a defenceman,” said Hart, a hometown boy who was yanked in his first ever NHL start here in Edmonton. “I was over-aggressive. I should have just let it come to me.
“You’ve got to stop pucks. I didn’t do my job, and it cost us,” said Hart. “I know I have a lot better, and I know I’ll be better next game. But tonight, you’ve got to come up with a couple of saves to keep your team in the game, and I didn’t do that.”
There are two ways to look at this game, from an Oilers perspective. On one hand their best players — McDavid (1-4-5), Leon Draisaitl (2-1-3) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1-1-2) — were simply better than the Flyers best players.
On the other?
“You can’t play like that and expect to be a playoff team,” spat Tippett. “After the first two shifts of the game we were outplayed by a wide margin. Connor got that goal and we got a couple of power-play goals and we pushed on.
“Between Draisaitl’s first goal (1:13 into the game) and Connor’s goal in the second period. That wasn’t how we have to play.”
The Oilers’ penalty-killing unit, tops in the NHL at the game’s outset, killed four of six situations, allowing one of the Philly goals on a six-on-three advantage late in the game. Their power play went two-for-two, so the special-teams battle that Edmonton has been winning all season thus far continued.
As for Braun v. McDavid? Well, sometimes Braun gets the bear, and sometimes the bear gets Braun.
“It never gets easier, and it seems like he’s getting better every year,” shrugged the Flyers defenceman, whose wife Jessica is the late Tom Lysiak’s daughter. “He put a show on tonight. It’s a lesson: You’ve got to shut down the best players in this league if you want to win.”
Look at the bright side. When Braun played for San Jose, he faced McDavid five times per season. Now in Philly, it’s only twice.
“I’ve had some good games, and some bad games against him,” said Braun, who knows he’s not alone.
“It’s a long list of guys.”