From John Druce to Fernando Pisani, the Stanley Cup playoffs have a long history of creating breakout offensive stars, pushing sometimes unlikely characters – witting or otherwise – into the spotlight.
Given the way the season started for Evander Kane, it’s fair to say the Edmonton Oilers left winger would have been a something of a long shot to be the joint leading goal scorer after the first six games of the playoffs.
This season alone, the NHL lightning rod has gone from being suspended for forging a COVID-19 vaccination card, to playing in the AHL, to having his contract terminated by the San Jose Sharks for allegedly crossing into Canada while he was supposed to be in quarantine after contracting the coronavirus. That’s on top of a turbulent personal period in which he was the subject of allegations of domestic abuse during divorce proceedings, as well as reports from his estranged wife of him betting on NHL games, both of which were investigated by the league and found to be unsubstantiated.
Now he skates alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and, after his first six postseason games in blue and orange, he’s able to list even more fabled members of Edmonton royalty as his peers, at least so far as it comes to putting the puck in the net.
His seven goals – one more than he scored in 29 career playoff games before signing with Edmonton in January – puts Kane level with Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen and Glenn Anderson for the third most goals in an Oilers’ playoff series.
One more and he’ll pull even with Mark Messier for second, although he will have to go some to equal Kurri’s franchise record of 12 goals in a series, achieved in the 1985 conference final.
Kane’s two goals in Thursday’s 4-2 Game 6 win over the Los Angeles Kings – he would have had his second hat trick of the playoffs but for a disallowed second-period effort – helped keep Edmonton’s season alive. The result is Saturday’s Game 7, the franchise’s first Game 7 on home ice since that collection of Hall of Famers held court at the old Northlands Coliseum, where the team went 3-1 in such games.
After scoring an empty-netter to secure the crucial victory, Kane held up seven fingers to the crowd in Los Angeles. But he said it was purely to signify what’s coming next, and nothing to do with his personal statistics.
“Oh no, I didn’t even realize that, honestly,” he told reporters after the game when told of his goal total. “It was Game 7, it was nice to get a win in this rink.”
Kane had to contend with new linemates on Thursday, as head coach Jay Woodcroft decided to load his top line with Draisaitl alongside McDavid and Kailer Yamamoto. That dropped Kane to the second trio, playing with centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman.
Whoever he’s paired with, Kane seems to have found a fit in Edmonton, coming off a regular season in which he averaged almost a point a game, with 39 points – including 22 goals – in 43 games. Kane doesn’t look at his breakout playoffs as anything out of the ordinary, however.
“That’s my part of my job,” he said after Game 6. “I’ve always been counted on to produce my whole career and in the playoffs everybody wants to raise their level, raise their game and that’s what guys are doing and I’m no different.”
Heading into a Game 7 that he described as “juicy,” Kane and the Oilers will be happy to welcome back Darnell Nurse after his one-game suspension, with the team employing a seven-man blueline unit in Game 6 to account for his absence. The Oilers have leaned heavily on the defenceman, with Nurse leading the way with an average of 21:45 of ice time per game.
In the first Game 7 at home since the 1990 divisional semi-final against the Winnipeg Jets, won 4-1 by Edmonton, the Oilers will need McDavid to continue his “otherworldly” play, as Woodcroft described his captain. McDavid, who was nominated for both the Hart and Ted Lindsay most-valuable-player trophies this week having already won his fourth Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer in the regular season, leads the playoff scoring race with 12 points in six games. However, his team will have to be at its best to beat Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is looking to become the first goaltender in NHL history to win his first five Game 7s, having put up a sparkling .940 save percentage in the previous four. Three of those wins came in the team’s most recent Stanley Cup campaign in 2014, when the Kings won three successive Game 7s on the road to the final.
At the other end, Mike Smith will make history as the first goaltender to play in his first Game 7 after having played at least 600 regular-season games. But having outplayed Quick in the series, with a .931 save percentage to Quick’s .893, the 40-year-old netminder is feeling confident his own track record will pay off.
“Experience, it is what it is,” he told reporters Friday. “I think if you’ve been around you’ve been through situations, different ones in your career. It can only pay dividends in the hard moments.
“So I think it’s one game, anything can happen; you just got to make sure you try and bring your A-game and put it all out there.”