EDMONTON — It’s definitely not fair that one team gets Connor McDavid and the other doesn’t. And now he’s playing defence, winning faceoffs, and shooting — and scoring — more than ever before.
It ends up with a game like the one played Thursday, where two sleepy teams were playing their second of back-to-back games and third in four nights. The Cheat Code — a.k.a. McDavid — scored twice and the Edmonton Oilers beat the Winnipeg Jets 2-1.
“Basically, he got us those two points tonight,” said winning goalie Mikko Koskinen. “We are happy to have him.”
On a night when both teams' stars were not great, simply overtaxed by this relentless pandemic-schedule, the brightest star was still his supernova self, as McDavid cranked up his lead in the scoring race and pulled to within one goal of league leader Auston Matthews with his 19th and 20th.
Honestly, this was one of those nights when it just isn’t fair.
“He’s incredible. It’s amazing to watch,” said defenceman Ethan Bear. “We were joking around, ‘We play a tight game, we have the best player in the league, and he doesn’t get tired. He does phenomenal things, like scoring two tonight, and we’ve just got to do our part and hold down the fort.’”
It was, in fact, the fifth game in seven nights for Edmonton, a span of games that invokes a minor-league schedule. We get it: These guys make big money. But that doesn’t make them machines, to be turned off, refuelled, and turned on again for another 60 minutes of consistent performance.
Somehow though, everyone else gets tired except for No. 97.
Somehow, the puck bounced over the stick of Mark Scheifele all night long, but it didn’t jump over McDavid’s as he whistled a pair of pucks past Laurent Brossoit’s stick side. He gave Edmonton a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes — with two more assists courtesy the red-hot Tyson Barrie — and Edmonton hung on to pull into a first place tie with Toronto at 40 points apiece.
That’s the other thing about McDavid these days. He appears to have had his Steve Yzerman moment, realizing that points alone won’t take him to a championship.
“[Defensive play] is always a main focus for us. I know it doesn’t always look like it,” McDavid said post-game. “We’re always trying to limit chances and keep the puck out of our net.”
McDavid went away after the disaster that was a four-game, Qualifying Round loss to Chicago last summer, and set his attention to a few crucial parts of his game. He wanted to be better defensively, to improve in the faceoff circle, and it was apparent to all that he would have to mix up the opposition by shooting a lot more.
Fast forward to this morning: McDavid’s 131 shots on net are second only to Brady Tkachuk’s 141, and after a career in which he never registered a faceoff percentage as high as 48 per cent, he sits at 51.4 per cent in the circle this season.
All in all, McDavid’s game has turned a corner that every superstar’s game must turn before they win. Yzerman, Mike Modano, Sidney Crosby — the best always seek out ways to get better.
“What I like most about him this year is, he’s come in with a real determined mindset to defend well and be a real solid player in our own end,” said his head coach, Dave Tippett. “Our whole coaching staff talks about it every day, how much he’s dug in to playing a real winning style of game.
“There was some criticism in the summer towards him and Draisaitl — that I didn’t think was warranted — but he’s taken it to heart and he’s become a much better 200-foot player. You notice the things he does offensively, but he’s a solid, dependable player in our own zone. He doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
He’s getting credit now.
The Cheat Code is winning faceoffs and playing defence.
That's bad news for the rest of the North.