EDMONTON — It wasn’t a Toronto-sized hump, but out here in the Hinterlands — where the games start at 8:20 p.m. and our maple leafs are red, not blue — it was a mountainous hump just the same.
The Edmonton Oilers had built a good regular season team, sure. They had two unreal players, one seemingly from another planet, and a pretty decent supporting cast, sure.
But when the season ends and you’ve played just four more games than the Arizona Coyotes or the New Jersey Devils, well, it gets stale. You can’t win rounds until you win a round, and after three straight second-place finishes in their Division, falling behind the Los Angeles Kings three games to two in Round 1 was definitely, as an old Flyers coach once described, “a choking situation.”
Connor McDavid, however, would have none of it.
On a night where the captain played over 27 minutes, McDavid had a goal and an assist in a 2-0, Game 7 win that propelled the Oilers into Round 2. There, they’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Calgary Flames and the Dallas Stars, two old playoff foes from days gone by.
“The first series is a tough one,” said Leon Draisaitl, who gave his team 22:36 playing on an ankle that left his skating stride resembling Festus from Gunsmoke (look it up, kids). “But getting over that hump feels good right now. But we plan on continuing to play for a while.”
Roget himself would run out of adjectives to describe McDavid’s play, on yet another night where the planet’s best player showed us even more. Game 6 may have been the best game McDavid has played in his NHL career, as he put this team on his back in an elimination game on the road.
Back at home in Game 7, McDavid set up Cody Ceci for the first goal at 13:15 of the second period, then drove the knife deep into the Kings’ hearts with a wild solo effort that made the score 2-0 with less than four minutes to play.
In all, he was in on five of the six goals Edmonton scored in Games 6 and 7. Sure, he’s known for five- and six-point nights, but in these two games, his all-around game has been Crosby-like, his utter dominance Gretzkian.
“He’s the best player in the world and he showed that in the last two games,” Draisaitl said. “There’s lots of skill with him, that’s a given, but it’s the will. You can see it in his eyes, you can feel it every shift that he’s out there. He’s determined.
“There was no way he, or us, were going to be denied. He led the way. He was amazing.”
That the Oilers close out this series with a 2-0 defensive masterpiece is perhaps a metaphor for what has finally happened here in Edmonton.
This has always been a franchise that could play a 5-4 or 6-5 game, but over the years they came to lose a lot more of those than they won. Edmonton dropped Game 5 in overtime, 5-4, and McDavid said after the game, “We scored four goals. That should be enough to win a hockey game.”
From the outside that came across as a swipe at the goaltending, but around here it was clear: down the stretch, the Oilers had finally shown the chops of a team that could win a 2-1 game when it mattered, and it was time to get back to that.
They allowed two goals total in the last two games of this series, a defensive clinic that left their old coach — and Kings bench boss Todd McLellan — tipping his hat.
“Sometimes it’s what the other team is doing, and they played a hell of a game,” he said Saturday. “They’re figuring some things out there.”
When it was required Saturday, Edmonton defended L.A. into the ice. The Oilers gave up nothing, and in turn goalie Mike Smith — the 40-year-old resident Gump Worsley whose mistake opened this series with a nerve-inducing loss — pitched one of the quieter 29-save shutouts in the first Game 7 of his lengthy career.
“We just couldn’t get sustained pressure to break them down,” lamented Anze Kopitar, such a high, high pedigree centreman who has accomplished so much. His was a phrase we’ve not heard an opponent utter of this Oilers team since, well, about 1990.
The defensive masterpiece wasn’t lost on McDavid, who today is 10 times the 200-foot player he was even two seasons ago. His work in his own zone has become as brilliant as when he’s buzzing the offensive zone, and now he has a team around him that can play 2-0 hockey in a Game 7 as well.
“It feels good to do it in that fashion,” said the captain. “There is always a lot of talk about the defensive side of the game, so for our group to step up in a big moment and play like that in a 2-0 win…”
This Oilers team was always one to panic. In a 0-0 game, as this one was for the first half, they were always ready to take the risk that did not have to be taken — force the play that didn’t have to be forced — a trait that usually led to pucks being pulled out of their net.
As they figured out their game late in this series, their feet were bullet-free.
“It’s just using lessons from previous mistakes,” said McDavid. “We have made those mistakes in the past and we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot tonight, which was obviously positive.”
When it was over, the fans lined up outside on 104th Ave. chanting for a Stanley Cup.
Humour them, will ya? It’s been a long time around here, and in a Canadian city — a one-horse hockey town — these players know it very well.
“It’s everything,” Draisaitl said of the fan support. “It’s what we play for. Game 7 at home — you can’t write this any better. These people are clearly very passionate, that’s very obvious.
“It’s great doing it for them.”