It was pointed out to Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock Wednesday after the morning skate that there were many times when Wayne Gretzky would come into Toronto with the Oilers and bury the home team on a Saturday night in front of a national television audience. And, of course, without missing a beat, Hitchcock finished the thought.
“Yeah, the same thing that McDavid is going to do tonight,” Hitchcock said. “I expect him to play well. He’s pissed off and hopefully he stays that way from 7 until 9:30. He’s not a happy guy right now and that’s good for us.”
It’s easy to see why McDavid hasn’t been a barrel of laughs of late. First, he had to do something for the past two games that he hates. He had to watch games instead of play in them, the result of a two-game suspension for a hit to the head against Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders last week. The Oilers are actually feeling pretty good about their game as of late, but the reality is once again grim and the odds are overwhelmingly against McDavid playing in the playoffs this spring. It’s not just that they’re eight points out of the final wild-card spot, it’s that they have five teams between them and the coveted position. This has been a season of utter dysfunction for the Oilers and another in which the talents of the greatest player on the planet will almost certainly be frittered away.
McDavid didn’t look particularly unhappy or beaten down. The Oilers had Tuesday off in Toronto and McDavid had dinner with some old friends from home and said he’s looking forward to playing in the Scotiabank Arena for the third time in his career. He’ll have some work to do to catch up with Gretzky’s exploits, however. In two career games in Toronto, McDavid has no points and has gone minus-2. Gretzky, on the other hand, used Toronto as his own personal shooting gallery. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Gretzky had 30 goals and 77 points in 30 career games in Toronto, including two six-point games and a five-point game. Overall, he had a mind-boggling 55-95-150 scoring line in 63 games against the Leafs. “It’s always exciting for me,” McDavid said. “I grew up watching the Leafs in this building.”
The Oilers actually played pretty well without McDavid in the lineup, beating the Anaheim Ducks 2-1 on home ice Saturday night before falling 3-2 in shootout in Nashville Monday night. But the Oilers know they are going nowhere without McDavid in the lineup. Their chances of making the playoffs are single-digit small with him, completely non-existent without him. “If we can just stay in the race and play as well as we’re playing, adding Connor right now is a great fit for us,” Hitchcock said, “and I’ll try to keep his minutes under 30.”
In the Oilers’ final 20 games of the season, it’s expected that McDavid will continue to face the constant abuse he has in the past, because NHL. The league and its Department of Player Safety were largely applauded for not playing favorites with the McDavid decision, but consistency when it comes to discipline has not exactly been the league’s strong suit. And there is, and always has been, the notion that players such as McDavid have to simply take their abuse and deal with it because they are superstars. In successive games in January, McDavid was elbowed in the face by Drew Doughty and hit from behind into the boards by Hampus Lindholm without even so much as a penalty call.
Surprisingly, it’s not those plays that irk Hitchcock and the Oilers so much. It’s actually the things that most people – referees included, apparently – don’t see that happens behind the play. “Those aren’t the ones that bother me because Connor gives it as much as he gets,” Hitchcock said. “The ones that bother me are the ones that are 40 feet behind the play where he’s trying to build up speed and they’ve got the stick in him already. People prevent him from getting into the play. If we’re trying to showcase our top guys, those ones are hard to find because they’re so far behind the play, but they’re there every night.”
But like Bobby Hull and Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby before him, McDavid is expected to simply endure it and keep going. Again, because NHL. He has done a remarkable job of keeping his emotions in check, but Hitchcock said that might not last much longer. “He doesn’t get distracted,” Hitchcock said. “He just keeps plowing through things. But I would say if it keeps going, he’s going to say something someday and it’s going to get everybody’s attention.”
If you’re looking for something to feel good about from an Oilers’ standpoint, they haven’t lost in regulation in four games and Hitchcock has noticed an esprit de corps that hasn’t been evident in the past. Perhaps it had something to do with McDavid’s absence, but Hitchcock is hoping it is becoming a trend.
“I like that we’re playing for each other,” Hitchcock said. “I like the fact that we’ve dug in for each other. We’ve been dug in for a while and to me that’s a really good sign because that’s something that carries with you for years. Wherever you’re at, you’re at. If it started on time here or it started late, whatever, but it’s going now and we want to keep it going.”