LOS ANGELES (AP) In his first 1 1/2 NHL seasons, Connor McDavid has become one of hockey’s most dynamic skaters and scorers. The All-Star has received fawning praise from no less than Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, and he has led a thorough revitalization of his Edmonton Oilers.
He has also done some less monumental things.
”To get a chance to play on a line with Justin Bieber was pretty funny,” McDavid said last weekend in Los Angeles after his first All-Star Game, recalling his pairing with the Canadian pop star during a celebrity game.
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McDavid is giving Edmonton’s long-suffering fans something to sing about as he goes back to his normal, boring line alongside Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl this week.
The 20-year-old NHL scoring leader has the Oilers on track to return to the playoffs after a decade away, but he realizes he’s only one piece in a puzzle that has been unsolved for years in Edmonton.
”I think the fans are definitely excited about it, and we’ve put ourselves in a good position to chase down a playoff spot,” McDavid said. ”The city is definitely excited about that, and they should be. They deserve to be. They’ve been loyal fans for 10 years with no playoffs and not-very-good teams, and now we’ve given them something to be excited about, and they should be.”
The debut season of the Oilers’ new $480 million Rogers Place arena has coincided with the arrival of their strongest team in ages. They opened the second half of the season with a 5-2 home loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night, dropping from first to third in the Pacific Division.
Yet they’re still in prime position to end this five-time Stanley Cup champion franchise’s 10-year postseason drought. They haven’t played for the Cup since the eighth-seeded Oilers fell one win shy of a sixth title in 2006 – the same year that a 9-year-old McDavid won the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s minor atom championship with the York Simcoe Express.
With 64 points going into the break, the Oilers have already surpassed their full-season point total in three of the previous seven seasons. Even a second-half collapse might not prevent them from getting 88 points, which is Edmonton’s best finish during its playoff drought.
”This should be the standard,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. ”This should be what happens every year, and that’s what we’re trying to get to. You’re in the mix. You’re winning more than you’re losing. You have some ups and downs, but you’re able to keep the downs a little bit shorter than in the past. This is what we’re trying to create as a standard, but I don’t think we’ve done that yet. We still have a lot of work up in front of us.”
Edmonton never finished higher than 24th in the overall league standings between 2010 and 2015. The Oilers infamously got four No. 1 picks in a six-year stretch of improbably good lottery luck, but only two remain – McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who plays a two-way supporting role.
Everything was different from opening night this season: The Oilers streaked to a 7-1-0 start, and they finished the first half of the season with back-to-back road victories over Anaheim and San Jose, likely their two stiffest challenges in the Pacific Division.
”It’s a huge boost of confidence to know that we can beat these guys, especially at their place, because teams like that are Stanley Cup contenders,” workhorse goalie Cam Talbot said.
Nugent-Hopkins has played for six head coaches in six years. McDavid has only known McLellan, who is particularly proud of the Oilers’ 15-7-5 road record and their improved goals-against average.
General manager Peter Chiarelli built a heavy, physical team capable of weathering the imposing California teams with the additions of Maroon, Milan Lucic and Adam Larsson, among others. The Oilers also have scored 16 more goals than every other team in the Pacific, and McDavid’s electrifying skills are an enormous factor in that area.
Last month, McDavid scored the 100th point of his NHL career in just his 92nd game. He has never played more than two consecutive games without scoring a point.
If he maintains his excellence over his first full 82-game season, there’s no telling what the Oilers could do in April and beyond.
”It’s an exciting time, and it’s great to be around this group of guys,” McDavid said. ”We’re hoping we can accomplish something really special.”
Even with plenty going wrong around them, the New York Islanders are in shockingly good shape on the ice. Two weeks after Doug Weight replaced coach Jack Capuano in a much-criticized firing, the Isles improbably have gone 5-0-1 under their new boss, capped by a 3-2 win over the NHL-leading Washington Capitals on Tuesday in their first game back from the break. They’ve done it even with turmoil behind the bench and with a murky future at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which is reportedly planning to drop the club in two years or sooner due to poor attendance and other issues.
While their Alberta archrivals are on a roll, the Calgary Flames are flickering. Johnny Gaudreau’s crew hit the break with seven losses in nine games, including two straight Saturday-night defeats courtesy of those exciting young Oilers. The Flames return from the break Wednesday night against powerful Minnesota before facing two East Coast road trips in the next 3 1/2 weeks.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Capitals at Canadiens, Saturday. A weekend matinee in Montreal between the Eastern Conference’s division leaders could set a tone for the stretch run. Washington hit the break on a 12-1-1 surge through January, but lost to the suddenly surging Islanders on Tuesday. The Habs have been considerably less proficient, but could hit their stride soon.