It is not that we did not know this before, but this week Connor McDavid made it eminently clear that he has surpassed Sidney Crosby to become the best Canadian on hockey’s landscape.
This is not a swipe at the Penguins’ venerable captain because he has delivered so many thrills in 17 years as the sport’s marquee player. It is more a recognition that McDavid has elevated the level of his game to a place where it is no longer arguable.
McDavid had a goal and three assists in Edmonton’s 5-2 victory over Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He was on the ice each time the Oilers scored, which made him plus-five for the night. Crosby had a mostly quiet-to-difficult evening: he had an assist but ended up minus-four. We can say with certainty that has rarely if ever happened to him.
“He’s just so good at creating something from nothing,” Crosby said of McDavid, who has risen from heir-apparent to unrivalled. “There is not a lot of danger and all of a sudden he’s on a 2-on-1 or he’s got a fast break. It’s a pretty small margin for error.”
McDavid skates so fast and handles the puck so adroitly that he almost plays at video-game speed. He defies how much anyone can dominate the game in an era in which players are bigger and quicker and stronger than they have ever been.
McDavid set up Zach Hyman for Edmonton’s first goal on its first shot. He then slipped another perfect pass to the former Maple Leaf on a 2 on 1 for the Oilers’ second. Later he put a puck right on Evan Bouchard’s stick for an easy tap-in during another 2 on 1. Then he scored an empty-netter with a little more than two minutes remaining to leave no doubt about the outcome.
On that play, McDavid preferred to pass to Hyman for what would have been his first career hat trick but Hyman waved him off at the last second because he could not free himself of a defender.
“I was trying to get him the puck,” McDavid said. “I almost felt guilty putting it in the net.”
Earlier, Hyman had one wiped out by an offsides penalty on Kailer Yamamoto.
“I don’t think about it too much,” Hyman said of getting his first three-goal game. He has scored two a dozen times. “I think eventually it will happen.”
McDavid had 15 goals and 40 points in 21 outings as he headed into Friday night’s clash with the Kraken in Seattle. As remarkable as those numbers are, he was only second in the NHL in scoring. His teammate Leon Draisaitl had 20 goals and 41 points.
Edmonton is 16-5 and jostling with the Calgary Flames for first place atop the Pacific Division. The Oilers’ start is their best since 1984, when Wayne Gretzky helped them burst from the gate to 12-0-3.
Naysayers will complain that Edmonton is really just a two-man team. I don’t recall if hockey fans said the same thing about Crosby and Mario Lemieux early on in Pittsburgh, or if anyone said, “Yes, but how good would the Blackhawks be without Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane?”
The difference, of course, is that the Oilers have only won a playoff series once in McDavid’s six seasons, and the franchise won its most recent Stanley Cup in 1990. Edmonton needs to make a long playoff run to turn some doubters into believers.
In that way the Oilers are not unlike the Maple Leafs. At this point, what Toronto accomplishes in the regular season barely matters. Despite the Leafs’ record, nobody will toss them bouquets until they prove their worth in the postseason. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.
McDavid is 24 and entering his prime now. Draisaitl is 26 and doing the same. Between them they have 81 points in 21 games. That is Gretzky-esque and Messier-like in a harder time for anyone to shine so brightly.
Crosby said this week that McDavid is playing at such a high level that it is hard to believe that he can find an even higher one.
“I think he’s done that,” Crosby said. “That’s the most impressive part about it.”
The Oilers have struggled to find any consistency in recent seasons. But their roster is much stronger now.
Hyman has a dozen goals and 17 points. Jesse Puljujarvi has seven goals and also has 17 points. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has scored just twice but has 20 points. Mikko Koskinen is 12-2 in the net. Edmonton beat Pittsburgh with Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci all out with injuries. It lost its top four guys on the blueline in four games and still went 3-1. On Wednesday, it dressed four defencemen who had played a combined 74 games in the NHL.
Imagine how Toronto would fare without Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie and Rasmus Sandin. Probably not too well.
The Oilers were outshot by Pittsburgh 26-13 in the first two periods but went into the final 20 minutes with the score tied 2-2. Then they blew the Penguins away. They scored four times on 21 shots against Tristan Jarry, who had allowed three goals on 175 shots in the previous six games.
This is no longer a one- or two-trick-pony team.
“We kind of held on for the first 40 minutes,” McDavid said. “We kind of worked our way through the game, capitalized on our chances and got some timely saves.”
There will undoubtedly be some ups and downs over 82 games. But the Oilers have been more than good enough so far.
McDavid and Crosby have faced one another only eight times. In those games, Edmonton’s captain has four goals and 10 assists. Crosby has scored twice and assisted on five others.
On Wednesday night, McDavid won the opening faceoff against Crosby. He has worked hard to improve in that area. He remembered the first time he lined up across from Crosby in the faceoff circle as a rookie.
“I was all excited and ready for the faceoff and he flicked it away from me before I even knew it,” McDavid said. “I never even had a chance.”
Time flies, and so does Connor McDavid.