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Swarming Sharks keep Oilers’ McDavid in check

Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid vies for the puck with San Jose Sharks defenceman Marc-Édouard Vlasic during Game 3 of their playoff series on April 16, 2017, in San Jose.

John Hefti/USA Today Sports

From last fall to early spring, Connor McDavid hit the score sheet pretty much whenever he stepped on the ice for the Edmonton Oilers. More often, when he wasn't scoring goals himself, he was helping teammates score. He never failed to do one of those things more than two games in a row. Until now.

Through 131 NHL games, the Oilers' captain has never gone more than two without a point. That could happen for the first time when the Oilers and San Jose Sharks meet Thursday night at Edmonton's Rogers Place in Game 5 of their playoff series.

It is not because Edmonton's young captain is playing so poorly. It is mainly because the Sharks, especially in the past two games, have swarmed around him like a man on a life raft. Even when he is not around a rink, McDavid must be peering over his shoulder to see if Marc-Édouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are following him.

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The San Jose defencemen are sticking to him like fly paper. On occasion, Brent Burns, the Sharks' mountainous Norris Trophy candidate, has chipped in. When the opportunity has been presented, Joe Pavelski has not hesitated to give McDavid a nudge or a sharp jab with his stick.

The rude treatment is not unusual for young players, especially supremely gifted ones such as McDavid. If it happened to you or me on the street, police would be summoned. At this time of year in arenas across North America, it is described as playoff hockey.

The last time McDavid went consecutive games without a point was Jan. 31 and Feb. 2. From then to now, he has played 33 games. He had 27 points over 16 leading into the third game of this best-of-seven series. Since then, nothing. Before that, he torched San Jose for five goals and five assists in seven games. He had 100 points and won the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion in his second season. So of course, he is Shark bait.

He knows it, the Oilers know it, fans know it. With each game that he is held in check, tension rises. Angst is not without merit. It is unlikely Edmonton can win without him having much of a presence, especially without contributions from his teammates.

Leon Draisaitl, who finished eighth in the NHL in scoring with 77 points, has all but disappeared. The 21-year-old German, without a point through four playoff games, got so frustrated during the Oilers' 7-0 bushwhacking by San Jose on Tuesday night that he speared Chris Tierney in the groin and was subsequently kicked out.

On Wednesday, the NHL fined Draisaitl $2,569.44 (U.S.), the maximum allowable under the collective agreement, for the spearing infraction.

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Patrick Maroon has four penalties and zero points through four games. Zack Kassian, who had seven goals during the regular season, scored the winners in Games 2 and 3 but was not a factor on Tuesday night. The game ended with fans chanting, "We want eight!" That is never a good sign.

Counting himself among them, Milan Lucic said afterward that it is time for the Oilers' key players to have an impact. He is right. When a baseball team's sluggers suddenly can't hit a lick in the World Series, things usually go south. The same is true in hockey.

In San Jose this week, McDavid said it doesn't matter if he doesn't score as long as the Oilers win. Todd McLellan, the Edmonton coach, said that nobody on either team is likely to be near the top of the chart in playoff scoring after this series because of the tight checking.

"There is not an inch of room out there," Lucic said.

The Sharks were roughed up in Game 2 in Edmonton and their coach, Peter DeBoer, shrugged it off.

"It is big-boy hockey time," Burns said.

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McDavid has 150 points in his first 131 games. He either led or was tied for the league lead in scoring every day this season from Nov. 22 on. Players with such immense skills are unlikely to disappear for too long.

"You never know when he's going to break out, so every shift we've got to be on him," Braun said.

The Sharks aren't easy. To a man, they are nearly four years older than the Oilers. At 37, Joe Thornton is as old as Moses and rather resembles him. Five other San Jose players are 32 or over. Mark Letestu is the oldest player lining up for Edmonton, and he is 32.

Sidney Crosby, the NHL's last great generational player before McDavid came along, had three goals and two assists in his first playoff series. In his first crack at the Stanley Cup, Wayne Gretzky had three points in three games.

It is harder than it looks, especially for a young player. The great ones persevere, and produce. There is still no reason to think McDavid won't.

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