“We have to come in with the right mindset, and find our own game away from him — without him,” preached Leon Draisaitl at the morning skate Tuesday. “It’s going to be a tight-checking group in here that’s going to defend like crazy and try to win games that way.”
A few hours later, Draisaitl would be sitting in his dressing room stall after a four-point, all assists except for the empty-net goal he scored, in a 5-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
“What happened to all that 2-1 hockey?” he was asked.
“That’s our thought process going into the game, right? ” shrugged the National Hockey League’s leading scorer (32-57-89). “With him out, we’re not going to score five goals every night, but, you just have to find ways to win hockey games. Whether it’s 7-6, 5-3, 2-1, 1-0 …
“You have to find a way to have two points in our bank after a game, and we did that tonight.”
Hey, we’re not laughing at anyone here. I was the guy asking the questions about if this team was equipped to win a series of low scoring games, while McDavid rehabs what the team is calling a quad injury. We even stopped by goalie Mike Smith’s stall with our hypothesis, and he was all in.
“Tipp (head coach Dave Tippett) has been preaching that all season,” said Smith, who would face 40 shots later that evening. “When it really turned around for us was when we buckled down defensively, and played an important, 200-foot game. The more we understand that that is what it takes to win close hockey games, the more we’ve grasped that and gotten points because of it.”
Well, maybe next game.
For now, let’s enjoy one last track meet, with a goal just 73 seconds in by Riley Sheahan, a Chicago short-handed goal and a 2-2 score after 20 minutes. By the 4:50 mark of Period 2, it was 4-3, a staunch defensive effort by the Oilers minus McDavid, and a tight, disciplined effort by a Blackhawks team whose season is teetering, six points south of the wild-card cutline.
In the end, the other element that went unchanged in McDavid’s absence was the difference-maker for Edmonton — the line of Draisaitl between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and rookie Kailer Yamamoto. They split up eight points between them, and since head coach Dave Tippett put them together after Christmas they have amassed a tidy 64 points in 15 games.
“Draisaitl was really good tonight,” nodded Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who was dancing like his old self Tuesday (two assists). “It seems like he has chemistry with Nugent-Hopkins and the Yamamoto kid. That line’s been good for them and they were really good tonight.”
Imagine being Yamamoto, a kid from Spokane, Wash., who was nine years old when Kane broke into the NHL. A great American player who made it at five-foot-10, 177 pounds — still three inches taller and 24 pounds heavier than Yamamoto is today.
Then add Jonathan Toews to the mix, and Yamamoto was living out a dream on Tuesday playing just his 41st NHL game against two of the best players of a generation and outscoring them two goals to one.
How cool is that?
“Big-time,” grinned Yamamoto. “They’re some of the best players in the NHL. It’s still hard to believe, but I’ve got to look at them like they’re just another player.”
This was the first game all season that McDavid missed, and other than a power play that tripped all over itself early — before settling and producing two goals — the Oilers looked fine in the short term without No. 97.
Of course, it helps having the NHL’s leading scorer to pick up the slack.
“That’s insane,” marvelled Yamamoto. “We’ve got two of the best players in the world.”
Most nights, one should be enough.