NHL

How Connor McDavid has somehow taken his game to another level

EDMONTON — Connor McDavid is putting on a masterclass of postseason performance, and it’s pushing the Edmonton Oilers to greater heights.

Take, for example, McDavid’s play in Game 2 of Edmonton’s second-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Calgary Flames. The Oilers were trailing 3-1 after a disallowed goal and McDavid had just set up a subsequent goal for Leon Draisaitl that was also called back.

Frustrating? Not for McDavid. Shortly thereafter, Edmonton’s captain took control and dangled through Calgary’s defense to score against Jacob Markstrom.

Edmonton’s bench exploded. The Oilers were back in business. And Calgary would not score again as Edmonton went on to win 5-3 and even the best-of-seven series at 1-1.

McDavid didn’t have much to say about his goal — “I’m just happy to contribute,” he said afterward — but there was no mistaking its impact, or the one McDavid is having in these playoffs.

And if McDavid isn’t going to talk about his play, there are plenty of people around him willing to pick up the slack.

“The way this guy is playing right now, it’s special,” Oilers interim coach Jay Woodcroft said. “He’s driving our team forward. Connor is the best hockey player in the world. He’s willing to pay a price to win. He’s driven to win. He has an effect on everybody in our organization with that desire to take his game to the next level.”

“I think he’s pushing his own limits, right? And that’s what special players do,” forward Zach Hyman added. “He’s taken his game to another level, and that’s hard to do already. But he’s leading our team in every aspect. He’s doing it all. He’s a huge reason we’re here.”

“Here” for the Oilers is now leading their series with Calgary 2-1 after a 4-1 blowout in Game 3 on Sunday. McDavid had three points in that game, teeing up two of Evander Kane‘s three goals and another by Hyman. But McDavid’s dominance goes beyond the scoresheet.

He can also get inside your head.

“We’ve let one guy beat us a few nights now,” Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk said following Sunday’s loss. “Just back to the drawing board and figure out a way to stop him. Pretty much, they’ve got one player that plays half the game and he’s playing some great hockey right now and we’ve got to find a way to stop that.”

Given the layers to McDavid’s contributions of late, it’ll be like halting a freight train:

  • He can effortlessly attack the offensive zone with unparalleled speed.

  • He can execute under pressure to keep a play alive.

  • He battles defensively to create offense.

  • He’s engaged physically, throwing the second-most hits (12) for Edmonton in this Battle of Alberta series, and has levied its third-most (33) through 10 playoff games.

The list could go on from there. McDavid has only gotten sharper since the Oilers opened their first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings, pounding on the brick wall that was Jonathan Quick until he could drag Edmonton through to a seven-game series win.

McDavid leads the NHL postseason field in points (23), same as he did in the regular season (123). He is a Hart Trophy finalist once again this season. But it’s not those accolades that set him apart. And it’s not why Woodcroft is willing to put his superstar on the ice when Edmonton is protecting a critical lead under duress, as it was late in Game 2.

“What I saw was a leader who, when the game was on the line, was prepared to be in a shooting lane,” Woodcroft said. “When the goalie is pulled and we’re killing a penalty, he was out there for a reason. He put his body on the line so we would win. And that type of self-sacrifice is what it takes to win this time of year.”


The McDavid Effect by the numbers

One look at McDavid and he passes the eye test. His postseason stats flesh out an even greater story.

In Sunday’s Game 3, McDavid became the first player in Stanley Cup playoffs history with nine multi-point contests through his first 10 games.

The outlier there was a pointless night in Game 4 against L.A. (a shutout for Quick). Since then, McDavid has recorded multiple points in six straight contests, marking the longest such streak since Evgeni Malkin achieved the same feat in 2009 (and eventually won the Conn Smythe when Pittsburgh hoisted the Cup). Only Wayne Gretzky (eight-game streak in 1983), Tony Currie (seven in 1981) and Darryl Sittler (seven in 1977) have done better.

The 23 points McDavid has accrued is tied (with Boston’s Rick Middleton in 1983) for the fourth-most through the first 10 playoff games, trailing only Wayne Gretzky (29 in 1983 and 25 in 1985) and Mario Lemieux (25 in 1992).

All told, McDavid has produced sparkling individual numbers, while skating alongside other top talents in Draisaitl and Kane. His figures are only one piece of the puzzle, though.

“[What] it shows,” said Oilers goalie Mike Smith, “is that when your best players are playing the best hockey of their careers in the playoffs, your team has a really good chance to win.”

And how.

According to Stathletes, the Oilers have generated 34 scoring chances (11.3 per game) against the Flames when McDavid is on the ice. Without him, Edmonton has created just 17 scoring chances (5.7 per game) and allowed 42 scoring chances against (14.0 per game).

He also leads all skaters this series in expected goals per 60 minutes (5.52). Draisaitl is second, with 5.18. Kane is third, at 3.82.

Through the Oilers’ first 10 playoff games, Edmonton has out-chanced opponents 102-47 with McDavid on the ice, for a staggering +55 differential. By comparison, the Oilers have 62 scoring chances without McDavid on the ice, and have allowed 101 scoring chances.

As a team, Edmonton has generated 28 goals at 5-on-5 in the postseason; McDavid has been out there for 17 (or 60.7%) of them.

With McDavid in the mix, the Oilers have given up only 169 shot attempts (16.9 per game) in these playoffs, compared to 376 (37.6 per game) when McDavid is on the bench.

It’s an astonishing reflection on McDavid’s overall game and represents the sheer volume of ways he makes Edmonton better. He’s already widely acknowledged as the NHL’s best player, but McDavid hasn’t stopped reinventing and tweaking and improving. It’s that commitment to excellence that impresses teammates most.

“He continues every year, in every important situation, to take another step and bring his game to another level,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “I think this playoffs he’s been physically hitting guys, he uses his body to protect the puck and get on the forecheck. We see that as a group, and obviously he makes the plays at every chance [that are] available and creates something out of nothing in so many situations. But for our group, when he’s your captain and he’s doing that [other stuff], you want to follow that and you want to follow his example.”


‘Driven to be the best in the world’

Whenever McDavid touched the puck in Game 3, a roar would erupt at Rogers Place. Chants of “M-V-P” reigned down with regularity from the thousands in jerseys bearing his name.

When McDavid laid an open-ice hit on Flames pest Tkachuk in the first period, a crescendo of cheers. When McDavid’s speed drew an interference call against Calgary’s Trevor Lewis, an ear-splitting whoop.

That’s the power McDavid wields. No words necessary.

“Do I think it’s special what Connor’s doing?” Woodcroft asked. “You don’t need me to tell you that.”

McDavid won’t provide much insight on his excellence, either. All his best talking gets done on the ice.

In that respect, what else can be said? McDavid is more than a game-changer. He’s a series-breaker. And he’s blown this one wide open for Edmonton as it heads into Game 4 on Tuesday (9:30 ET, ESPN) with a chance to put Calgary on the brink of elimination.

Which would be just another day at the office for McDavid.

“Every aspect of Connor in terms of the professional hockey player is business-oriented,” Woodcroft said. “He is driven to be the best in the world. He is driven to find marginal gains on a day-to-day basis. During crunch time or adverse times in games, what you’re seeing is somebody who is still maintaining his character. In his play, you see an elevation or willingness to do just a little bit more. And I think that type of effort and leadership is contagious. And I think it resonates with our players.”

With two more wins against Edmonton’s provincial rivals, he’ll be doing it on an even bigger stage.


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