Stanley Cup Final: McDavid magic keeps Edmonton alive for Game 6

EDMONTON, Alberta — Connor McDavid was surrounded by greatness.

His hair still wet from practice, he sat in Studio 99, the restaurant in the Edmonton Oilers’ home arena named for Wayne Gretzky and full of memorabilia commemorating the legendary career of the “Great One.” To his right was a jersey Gretzky wore during his first NHL season and on the wall to his left quotes from No. 99, who captained Edmonton to the Stanley Cup four times.

If McDavid keeps this up, the Oilers are going to have to make room for a Studio 97.

The heir apparent to Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby as the best hockey player in the world, McDavid has carried his team from the brink of elimination in the Stanley Cup Final against the Florida Panthers to a Game 6 on home ice Friday night. The only player in league history to record back-to-back four-point games in the final, the Oilers captain gets his next chance to add to his legacy and push the series to a deciding Game 7 back across the continent.

“You spend your life working to get into a position like this,” McDavid said Thursday. “You think that when you’re here it’s going to be some magic feeling, magic, I don’t know. You don’t know what to expect. To be honest, it’s all been pretty normal. This has always been part of the plan for our group, to be in a position like this, playing big games at home in big moments. Just another one tomorrow night.”

Just another one in front of another sellout crowd of 18,000-plus, with many more in the city of nearly a million people packing downtown in hopes of witnessing something that has not been done in nearly eight decades. Detroit in 1945 was the last team to trail 3-0 in the final and get to a Game 7, and Toronto three years before that was the only one to come all the way back.

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The only way Edmonton is able to dream of that possibility now is because of McDavid, who at 42 points this postseason is just five shy of Gretzky’s record set in 1985. He has emerged as the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, even if the Oilers fall short and the Panthers win the Cup for the first time in franchise history.

“He’s a reckless skilled player, which a very unique quality,” Hall of Famer Ken Hitchcock, who coached McDavid in 2018-19, told The Associated Press by phone. “He’s not afraid to put his body in dangerous areas to score, and it’s really hard to defend against. He’s going to the net and taking a hit to make a play. There’s no fear in his game — none.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice warned anyone who would listen to him coming into the series that the greatness of McDavid tends to get taken for granted because it’s such a constant. McDavid hasn’t had a ton of goals in these playoffs, or in this title series, but his impact has been off every chart.

“Here’s what happens: You get really good players, like Connor McDavid, and they get a block of time where they don’t score and there seems to be something wrong,” Maurice said. “There isn’t. Nobody, even Connor McDavid, scores at the rate in the last three games over 82 or over every playoff game or he’d have 700 points a year. That’s the way this works.”

McDavid might be reinventing how this works, putting up 11 points in Games 2-5 of the final on three goals and eight assists, despite getting the toughest defensive matchup possible opposite Aleksander Barkov, Florida’s captain who won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward this season and earlier in the playoffs shut down Boston’s David Pastrnak and New York’s Artemi Panarin to get the Panthers to this point.

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Being at his best when the pressure is at its highest is nothing new for McDavid. Nearly a decade ago he was the leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs months after earning MVP honors at the world junior championship, where he led Canada to the gold medal in the building in Toronto in which he grew up going to games as a fan.

Kris Knoblauch, who took over as Oilers coach after their horrendous start had them 31st in the league out of 31 teams, knows McDavid well from their time together back then with the OHL’s Erie Otters. He thinks loving the game this much is part of the three-time MVP’s ability to shine when the spotlight is its brightest.

“I don’t think you can be exceptional at anything you do unless you absolutely love what you’re doing, and he loves playing hockey,” Knoblauch said. “He’s a very competitive person also. He wants to win, wants to be the best, so between his love and passion I think that just allows him to rise up and make those plays at significant times.”

Those plays have made McDavid a hero in Edmonton, where No. 97 jerseys are more common than Tim Hortons coffee shops. Asked to explain the hype, defenseman Mattias Ekholm compared McDavid to Sweden soccer icon Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“He’s our Zlatan,” Ekholm said in Swedish. “He is as big, although being a totally different kind of individual. Zlatan was outgoing and somewhat cocky and publicly self-confident. Connor is more restrained in that regard, but on the field (or in the rink), they’re the same kind of player who can take over entire games and totally dominate.

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“He’s as big as you can be. I don’t know how big Gretzky was when he was playing here, but I assume it was kind of the same. He really deserves it, especially with how good he is in the really big games.”

Seventeen years since winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim and in danger of losing in the final for the third time time in four trips since 2020, veteran winger Corey Perry likened McDavid’s leadership to that to Scott Niedermayer, who was the captain of the Ducks on their title run in ’07. It will take two more wins to follow Niedermayer’s path to the Cup and the Conn Smythe, but if anyone is able to do it, it is McDavid.

“He lets his play do the talking,” Perry said. “What Connor’s doing, he’s put this team on his back and really led by example. The guy’s on a mission, and we’re right there following him.”

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