There was something apropos in the setting after Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in five years on Saturday night.
Minutes after he put the finishing touches on a 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7, scoring the insurance marker with just under four minutes to play, the Edmonton captain took his seat for the news conference in what is known as the Hall of Fame Room at Rogers Place.
There, between a glass case of historic team jerseys on one side, fans outside the street-level windows shouting “MVP” on the other, and a wall of plaques of legendary Oilers at the far end, McDavid tried to explain how it felt to win a playoff series for just the second time in his career.
“It’s definitely up there, but that being said, it’s just one round, there’s a long way to go here,” he said. “We’re happy to move on to the second round, but that’s all we did.”
He may well play down the team achievement of moving on – after all, this is a franchise that used to hoist Stanley Cups as a rite of spring – but from an individual standpoint, McDavid seemed to reach another level, particularly in the last two games, to secure the series win.
With 14 points in the series, McDavid became just the eighth player in NHL history to score that many in an opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with only Mario Lemieux (17 in 1992) and Wayne Gretzky (15 in 1987) putting up more. With 10 assists, including one on Cody Ceci’s series winner on Saturday night, he also joined Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Esa Tikkanen as the only Oilers to set up as many goals in a playoff series.
While the words ‘McDavid’ and ‘magic’ have been conjoined almost from the moment he was drafted first overall in 2015, the way he took over this series didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates. And for once, it wasn’t just centred around the unparalleled levels of skating and stickhandling ability that have been his hallmarks since entering the league.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Leon Draisaitl said afterward. “And I think he showed that in the last two games and I think it’s not skill – there’s lots of skill obviously with him, that’s a given – but it’s the will, right?
“You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it every shift that he’s out there. He’s determined and there’s just no way that he or us were going to be denied, right, so he led the way. He was amazing.”
Talk of McDavid’s glare and steely determination may well conjure up images of former Oilers captain Messier taking over a series of his own against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1990 Campbell Conference final on his way to leading Edmonton to its last championship.
Much like Messier, McDavid has shown in this series a willingness to do whatever it takes to get his team across the finish line. In Game 6, it was the opening goal 100 seconds in to set the Oilers on their way to victory. In Game 7, it was a thunderous bodycheck on Kings rookie Sean Durzi just 22 seconds after the opening faceoff as his way of setting the tone for his teammates.
“I could be here for a long time telling you all the things he can do,” goaltender Mike Smith said after Saturday’s game. “He was a determined player and a player that you could see in his face that he wanted it more than anybody else on the ice. And everyone else just kind of jumped on his back and followed his lead.”
McDavid obviously had help, whether it was a Game 7 shutout from Smith, or back-to-back game-winning goals from former Toronto Maple Leafs defencemen Ceci and Tyson Barrie to clinch the series. But with fellow all-star Draisaitl appearing to be less than 100 per cent after being pulled to the ice awkwardly in Game 6, the captain stepped up when it mattered most, playing 51:25 of ice time in the final two games of the series.
Although head coach Jay Woodcroft has been in charge of the Oilers for just over three months, he was quick and to the point when he was asked if he’s seen anyone play as well as his captain in the past two games.
“No,” came the reply. “You guys were witness to what I was witness to, I just had an ice-level seat. … He’s driven to win. He’s a fantastic teammate.
“He’s a leader who leads by example, and I’m happy for him. Two really, really good hockey games on his part.”