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It was just a midseason game between two of the league’s worst teams, but there was real excitement at Rexall Place for Connor McDavid’s return on Feb. 2. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
It was just a midseason game between two of the league’s worst teams, but there was real excitement at Rexall Place for Connor McDavid’s return on Feb. 2. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


A faltering Oilers franchise gets a positive jolt with McDavid’s return Add to ...

Connor McDavid is back. He raised a ruckus in his return to the NHL Tuesday night.

The 19-year-old rookie scored a highlight-reel goal by bursting through two defenders and undressing the goalie to put Edmonton ahead, then added two more assists in the Oilers’ 5-1 victory over Columbus.

Late in the game, the standing-room crowd at Rexall Place was singing and chanting the No. 1 draft pick’s name. Fans wearing No. 97 jerseys hugged beneath the stands.

It was the best night in Edmonton since the Saturday in April when the Oilers won the NHL lottery draft.

McDavid didn’t just return to the lineup for the first time since Nov. 3, he blew through the place and the confused Blue Jackets’ defenders like a hurricane. He started at centre, drew a penalty 26 seconds into the game and directed a power play that recorded five shots within a minute.

It had been three months since McDavid fell into the boards and broke his left collarbone in just the 13th game of his professional career. He picked up right where he left off; he had 12 points before his injury, and now he has 15 in 14 games.

“He set the tone, and the team just followed,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. “We certainly missed him.”

After scoring his sixth goal of the season, McDavid slid across the ice on his knees and pumped his fist three times. He burst into a smile when he skated to the bench and was mobbed by his teammates.

“I had spent three months waiting around and had a lot of grumpy days,” McDavid said. “I think it all came out there.”

The team’s long-suffering fans were relieved, too. Almost 17,000 people packed Rexall Place to welcome him back. It mattered not that it was a February contest between the NHL’s most underachieving teams. It might as well have been a playoff game – something Edmonton has grown unfamiliar with over the last nine-plus years – for all the excitement it created.

Before the game, John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets’ acerbic coach, was eager to see McDavid play.

“I have never seen him in person, only on tape,” Tortorella said standing beneath the stands as his team took part in a morning skate. “He’s at the top of the list of many good young players in the game right now.

“Having him back will give the Oilers a jump right away.”

McDavid was named the league’s top rookie for October after scoring 12 points in his first dozen games. The next night, his skate caught a groove in the ice and he went flying head first into the boards after breaking in on the Philadelphia goalie Michal Neuvirth at full speed.

The game’s greatest young player had a plate and screws inserted into his crumpled left clavicle the next day. He was cleared for contact last month and skated during the all-star break with the Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers’ affiliate in the American Hockey League. On Tuesday night, he centred a line with Jordan Eberle and Benoît Pouliot on the wings.

Fans poured through the doors wearing McDavid sweaters and lined up to bid on McDavid memorabilia being sold as part of an auction by the Oilers Community Foundation. A large framed photograph from opening night signed by the rookie drew a bid of $1,100 before the puck dropped. A bid of $800 was received for a signed McDavid jersey from the Erie Otters, and $700 was offered for one of his autographed sweaters from the 2014-15 World Junior Championships.

Brian Stuart, a season-ticket holder since 1978, came with his wife, Cheryl. “I have been nervous for him all day today,” Cheryl said. “I can’t even imagine how he is feeling.”

The long layoff caused McDavid to miss a much-anticipated first game in Toronto, near the Newmarket home where he grew up rooting for the Maple Leafs. It caused him to miss his first game against Sidney Crosby, the player with whom he is most compared. And it likely cost him a trip to the all-star game. He was leading all rookies in scoring and had just strung together a seven-game points streak when he got hurt.

“The first couple of days and the first week after the injury were the hardest part,” McDavid said Tuesday morning. A pack of more than 30 reporters and photographers, in Edmonton to document his return, crowded around him in the dressing room. “It was hard to go through, knowing the time when I would return was so long away.

“There are a lot of days when you are down on yourself, and you have to pick yourself up. It is a good feeling to have that behind me.”

On Monday, when he returned to practice, it lifted the spirit of McDavid’s teammates. The Oilers won only 14 of 37 games in his absence, scored two goals or fewer in 20 of those games and were shut out three times.

“We’ve got the big guy back, and that’s going to give us some confidence,” said veteran forward Matt Hendricks. “When he walked back into the room, there were a lot of open arms.”

Hendricks was steps behind McDavid on the November night he went into the boards.

“When I went over to him, I saw the look on his face,” Hendricks said. “It was shock more than pain. I didn’t know exactly what happened to him, but I knew it was bad.”

After climbing to his feet, McDavid picked up his stick and skated off slowly, joining his teammates on the bench. It fooled some of them into thinking he wasn’t hurt too badly.

“When he went to the bench, I actually was happy,” said Nail Yakupov, another of the Oilers’ young guns and a fellow No. 1 draft pick. “I didn’t expect the injury to be that bad. He didn’t show it. He is really strong mentally.”

McDavid returns to a team that is still mathematically in the playoff hunt. Their chances are slim, but Connor McDavid is back. It’s a happy day in Edmonton. Anything seems possible.

“Wow,” McLellan said afterward on Tuesday night. “He’s fast. He’s quick. He’s smart. He’s slippery. He’s got a hunger level to go with it.

“I think you saw a lot of pent-up frustration come out tonight.”

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