TORONTO — Back in the day, it was as safe a bet as you could make.
Wayne Gretzky used to roll into old Maple Leaf Gardens on Hockey Night in Canada, and with Walter, Phyllis and family in the stands, he’d absolutely take the Leafs apart on a Saturday night.
“Like McDavid’s going to do tonight?” Ken Hitchcock asks. “Same thing.”
Connor McDavid returns tonight from a two-game suspension that was levied for a hit to the head of New York Islanders defenceman Nick Leddy, and even the Toronto Maple Leafs are pretty sure they’re going to get his best game.
“He’s missed the last couple games,” said Leafs centre John Tavares. “We expect him to be shot out of a cannon.”
It’s a cliché here in a province that produces more NHL players than any provincial jurisdiction in the world. Forty-one times a year there is an opposing player who grew up sleeping in Maple Leafs jammies, who buys the overpriced tickets for his family and skates out on a rink he dreamed of playing on his entire childhood.
It is once again McDavid’s turn, and coupled with his recent absence, fans could be in for a special treat tonight.
“It’s always exciting for me,” McDavid said. “I grew up watching the Leafs in this building. Didn’t come to many games, but watched ‘em on TV. It’s still a special place.”
The difference is, not many of those returning players are as good as McDavid. And very seldom is one returning to the ice after serving a suspension that he felt was unjust.
“He’s pissed off,” Hitchcock said, “and I hope he stays that way from 7:00 ‘til 9:30.
“He’s not a happy guy right now, and that’s good for us.”
While the Oilers, led by CEO Bob Nicholson, were vocal in their displeasure with the Department of Player Safety’s decision to suspend McDavid for two games, even McDavid gave us a rare public display of disregard for the disciplinary process in his reaction to the suspension. He thought the DoPS did not really listen to the case that was built in McDavid’s defence, presented during a phone hearing.
“A lot of times, they already have their minds made up. They don’t really care what you have to say,” McDavid said. “It wasn’t like it was an insane, blow-someone-up, kind of play.”
That is as close as you’ll get to hearing the Oilers superstar criticize the NHL, the officials, or anything, really. Privately, McDavid may be thinking that a guy who does as many appearances — who extends himself on behalf of the league as much as he does — should have deserved a better fate.
Publicly however, the McDavid we have come to know will take out his displeasure on the ice. That begins tonight at Scotiabank Arena.
“He’s going to have his legs, I’m assuming,” chuckled teammate Leon Draisaitl. “It’s exciting for him, coming back home. Lots of family in the stands. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen him play a bad game. I’m expecting a good game from him.”
McDavid, as is his wont, warned reporters that he might be a little rusty.
“Rest is one thing,” he cautioned. “But I didn’t play (four games ago) against Arizona, and had two games off after that, so…”
McDavid has missed three of the Oilers’ past four games, one due to illness and two to suspension. The Oilers won one game and lost two in shootouts.
His absence was probably felt the most in that, with McDavid joining Draisaitl in overtime, at least one of those shootout losses could well have been an OT win.
He’s fallen to third in NHL scoring with 85 points, behind both Patrick Kane (93 points) and the seemingly unassailable Nikita Kucherov (101 points).
If McDavid is going to win his third straight Art Ross Trophy, the time to start chipping away has arrived. Conveniently, here in Toronto.