Captain mode: McDavid keeping Oilers settled amidst rocky start to Cup Final

Oilers captain Connor McDavid talks about what his message will be to the team to allow them to remain loose in such a big spot here vs. the Panthers, and also have the right level of urgency, ahead of their must-win Game 3 of the SCF.

EDMONTON — They named Connor McDavid captain at 19 years and 266 days old — the youngest in National Hockley League history — and they hoped this day would come a lot faster than it has. Yet, seven years and 247 days later, here we are.

As his Edmonton Oilers packed their gear away after losing Game 2 in Florida, McDavid was already in captain mode, projecting a message publicly that was meant to settle his team privately, after a rocky start to their first Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be difficult,” McDavid said, almost unsolicited. “I’m excited to see what our group is made of, excited to see our group coming together. Excited to see us fight through adversity, and looking forward to people doubting us again, with our backs against the wall.”

Leadership? That, folks, is what a leader says.

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When they sewed the “C” on the front of McDavid’s jersey, he would admit a few years later, he was scarcely ready for the task of leading men 10 and 12 years his senior into a battle like the one facing the Edmonton Oilers today: down 2-0 and facing a must-win game in the first-ever Oilers Stanley Cup Final game played at Rogers Place.

But the guys back then, they knew that when this day arrived, McDavid would be as ready as he appears to be.

“You don’t just go out and name someone,” said veteran, character winger Matt Hendricks that day. “That someone becomes that person.”

Kris Versteeg, a two-time Cup winner with Chicago, may have said it best:

“When you’re on the other side, say when you play Tampa, there is a presence with Steven Stamkos. When you play Edmonton there’s a presence around Connor,” Versteeg told me once. “With Jonny Toews, Patrick Kane never had a letter. But just that sheer presence they had made your belief more positive. That belief that you’re going to win every night because they’re on your side.”

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This is the singular advantage that Edmonton has that no other team can claim. That every single night of every season, the best player on the ice wears their uniform. Often times, though not necessarily in this series, the best two players.

The only thing that can enhance that advantage is when that player (or players) matures into a leader who can bring the rest of the team that little bit closer to his level. When he not only leads on the ice, but off of it as well.

Like when McDavid was asked about the Oilers’ power play on Wednesday, and what kind of strategy it will take to break through on a crazy aggressive Panthers penalty kill?

“Just using instinct. We call it playing road hockey — we’ve got to be elite at that,” he said. “They’re doing a great job of making it tough on us, but with that being said, the power play has been together for a long time and we’ve been great at what we do.

“We usually solve penalty kills, and I would expect us to figure this one out, too.”

See that last line?

That’s a confidence that a 22-year-old McDavid always had, but would never have said out loud.

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Today, McDavid has grown into the true face of the league in the sense that he’s confident in his opinion on everything from the rulebook to the international game.

The player we saw on the podium on Wednesday, dressed all in black — jeans, a hoodie, and now even a proper playoff beard — has arrived at his destination honestly.

“He’s dealt with this since he was 10 or 11,” Wayne Gretzky said a few years back. “He was the focus of attention, supposed to be the best on the team. He played on the World Junior team, he was on a tremendous junior team in Erie with a lot of attention in Ontario.

“Sort of like what I grew up with, he’s been through all this,” Gretzky said, “He doesn’t need me to sit him down and say, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ He knows what to do.”

McDavid knows his task heading into Game 3 is to keep his team settled and remind them of why they can do this. This isn’t a one-off. They’ve been here before and succeeded.

“We’ve been down and out lots this year,” he said. “We’ve been down and out lots throughout the playoffs. It’s nothing new to this group.”

He repeats the question: “Where does that come from?”

“I think it comes from just such a big will to win,” McDavid said, answering himself. “Our group wants to win as bad as I’ve seen. Not to say that Florida doesn’t want to win, because they sure do, but our group has willed our way out of situations and I think we have an opportunity to do that here in this series, as well.”

The words, they’ve gone from rookie cliches to veteran-wise.

If the game is as good tomorrow night, I wouldn’t miss it.

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