Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid may be the best hockey player in the world, but his body language these days resembles a guy with a big chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
That can’t be good news for the Chicago Blackhawks, the bottom-seeded team in the NHL’s return-to-play Western Conference qualifying series, tasked with beating McDavid and the fifth-seeded Oilers in a five-game series that starts Saturday at Roger’s Place.
McDavid and teammate Leon Draisaitl were one-two in league scoring during the regular season, with Draisaitl racking up 43 goals and 110 points to win the Art Ross trophy. McDavid was second with 34 goals and 97 points.
The duo formed the nucleus of the league’s deadliest power play, scoring at almost 30 per cent, a rate not seen since the high-flying Montreal Canadien dynasty days of the late 1970s.
Everything is looking good for the Oilers: four months off gave a breather to Draisaitl (he had been logging heavy minutes) and playing the games in an isolation bubble in Edmonton, which, while far from ideal for so many reasons, levels the playing field between east and west teams on travel.
McDavid worked hard during the hiatus, and teammates say he has somehow found a next gear for his world-class speed. He scored two goals against Calgary in Tuesday’s exhibition game. The second saw him rocket down the right side, pull up as if to pass, then whip a no-look shot between the pads of David Rittich.
Flat out filthy.
Chicago, meanwhile, appears ripe for the picking. The Hawks were spiralling out of the playoff picture when they given a Lazarusian reprieve by becoming one of the 24 eligible for return to play. Heck, they were even sellers at the trade deadline.
Their best hope, veteran goalie Corey Crawford, needs to steal a couple of games, but he didn’t even resume skating until a week ago as he recovered from COVID-19.
Only 11 of the 35 players starting the Hawks return to play camp had playoff experience, but those who do — including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith —are Stanley Cup winners and won’t be feeling any jitters.
The Chicago kids will have to step up, particularly Calder candidate winger Dominik Kubalik. He continued his torrid pre-hiatus scoring pace by potting two goals and an assist versus St. Louis in exhibition play this week.
McDavid also doesn’t have to do it alone.
His supporting cast is stronger. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has continued his top-level play. Kailer Yamamoto has been scoring at a point a game pace since getting called up in late December. And mutton-chopped Zack Kassian has come into his own as a power forward, reminding everyone if he has the choice between scoring or running over somebody and then scoring, he’ll pick the latter every time.
The Oilers have made the playoffs only once in McDavid’s time and the bottom line is the clock is ticking if McDavid, 23, and Draisaitl 24, want to fulfil the promise of being one of the storied NHL duo success stories a la Gretzky-Messier and Crosby-Malkin.
Also, lose to Chicago and the crocodile-tear-stained schadenfreudists will no doubt resurface, again urging McDavid be granted an exit visa out of hockey’s northern gulag, which has seen one playoff run in 13 years and where the most treasured recent collective hockey memory, seriously, is deputy commissioner Bill Daly turning over the gold card in 2015 to give Edmonton the right to draft McDavid.
McDavid wants to get going, too, and it shows in his media interviews. His answers are already notoriously brief in length and short on substance, understandable given anything he says can move the needle on league-wide issues or get tacked up on the opposition bulletin board for instant motivation.
Answering questions over Zoom after Tuesday’s Calgary game, McDavid fidgeted in his chair, eyes frequently darting off camera, his game analysis kept to a tight Dick and Jane reading level (“Liked our first period, didn’t like our second, and I thought we responded well in the third.”)
His demeanour, however, was clear.
Let’s drop the puck.
KEY MATCHUP — Special teams. If Chicago doesn’t stay out of the penalty box, this series will be over in a big hurry. The Blackhawks had the ninth-best penalty kill (82.1 per cent) but overall allowed the most shots per game (35.1). They focused on their power play in the return-to-play practices, but Edmonton’s penalty kill ranked second in the NHL (84.4 per cent)
THE BIG QUESTION — Can Crawford (2.77 goals against average and .917 save percentage) shake off the rust and give the Hawks a chance to steal the series? Crawford and Malcolm Subban combined to shut out the St. Louis Blues in Wednesday’s exhibition game. That means nothing really, but it beats getting blown out.
PLAYOFF HISTORY — Both teams have not been in the playoffs since 2017.
COACHES’ PLAYOFF HISTORY — It’s the veteran versus the newbie. Dave Tippett, in his first season in Edmonton, has been an NHL head coach since 2002, with stints in Dallas and Phoenix. He took the Stars to hockey’s final four in 2008. Jeremy Colliton is in his second year with Chicago in his first stint as head coach.
REGULAR-SEASON RECORDS — Edmonton 37-25-9 (12th in NHL) and Chicago 32-30-8 (23rd).
SEASON SERIES — Chicago won two of three versus Edmonton. The two have faced off four times in the playoffs, the last time in the 1992 conference final (won by the Blackhawks).
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press