PITTSBURGH — The torch was officially passed from one generational player to the next, while second place was clinched and the Art Ross Trophy signed, sealed, and scheduled for a Saturday delivery.
On a fabulous four-point night, Connor McDavid waltzed into Sidney Crosby’s barn and gave the hockey world a virtuoso performance. It ended as a 5-1 Edmonton Oilers win at Pittsburgh on Tuesday, a tidy bit of business that wrapped up the Oilers' season in a nice, tight bow with two games to play — now meaningless ones.
“A quiet four-point night? A loud four-point night? I don’t know. It’s just normal, right?” marvelled Zach Hyman, who wasn’t sure that McDavid authored more scoring chances on this night than any other in recent weeks, though more lit the lamp than usual.
“He makes so many plays on the ice that don’t result in goals. He probably could have had a couple more points,” Hyman said. “He’s such a dynamic player. He’s the best player in the world. That’s what you expect. That’s what you get. I’m glad he’s with us. I’m glad I’m here.”
On the same night Auston Matthews sewed up the Rocket Richard by scoring No. 60, McDavid moved seven points ahead of second-place Jonathan Huberdeau in the points race with 122 points. With Huberdeau closing in, and McDavid’s childhood hero Crosby on the opposing bench, the Oilers captain pitched a thriller in Pittsburgh, bringing the home crowd out of their seats throughout the night.
“That’s what the best players in the world do. They rise to those occasions,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “What he’s doing here with this season … there’s almost a consensus that it is just McDavid being McDavid. That’s what he does. But he’s at a career-high, he’s driving our team and he’s playing the game the right way. He’s driven to win.”
There have only been two 125-point seasons since the turn of the century (Joe Thornton and Nikita Kucherov). If McDavid can get there, he’ll just throw more sand in the gears for the Hart Trophy voters.
As for his ongoing competition with Crosby, well, other than the Stanley Cup count there isn’t much left to be contested, head to head. In nine career meetings it’s 5-13-18 for McDavid, and 2-3-5 for Sid, who had to settle for a front-row seat — but zero points — Tuesday.
“For everybody in that generation, Sid was the guy that most kids looked up to. I’m sure that adds an extra layer for (McDavid),” said Hyman, who added an important goal early in the third that broke open a 2-1 game.
But it was McDavid’s game that had this barn buzzing, as Edmonton won in regulation here for the first time since the doors opened. He has 12 points in Edmonton’s last four games, carrying his club to second place in the Pacific and home-ice advantage in Round 1 against the Los Angeles Kings.
“Towards the end of the season, things get harder, and it’s harder to score. He’s making it easier,” said Hyman. “He’s stepping up and being a huge difference-maker for us. We had a stretch there where things weren’t going well. We needed to turn it around quick. He’s a big reason why we were able to.”
Mike Smith won his 10th straight start, the longest such winning skein in the NHL this season and leaving him tied for the Oilers record with Grant Fuhr (1985-86). Smith is en fuego at precisely the right time, stopping 33 pucks Tuesday as he stakes his claim to be Woodcroft’s Game 1 starter.
Also, with the score 4-1 and the Pittsburgh net empty, Smith rifled a 190-foot shot and missed the goal by a foot. It would have been icing on a well-baked cake here in Pittsburgh, where the Oilers thoroughly outplayed a Pittsburgh team that dearly needed these points.
“I was on my toes on the bench to see if it was going in. If there’s anybody that can do it, it would be him,” Woodcroft said.
This young first-time head coach is leading a team into the playoffs that has the third-best winning percentage in the NHL since March 1. That’s two full months of elite hockey, and a confidence that was on display here.
“That performance you saw tonight against a really good hockey team,” began Woodcroft, “was four lines contributing for all 60 (minutes), a goaltender that was on his game, special teams were firing … It was a complete 60 for us versus a team that had something to play for.”
It’s home now for a couple of tune-ups against San Jose on Thursday and the Vancouver Canucks on Friday.
Then a third straight playoff appearance for a team that has never been more confident.
This could be fun.