Talk all you want about Evander Kane’s hat trick, Leon Draisaitl’s four assists, the need for better goaltending, or the Flames’ desire to play more 5-on-5 against the Edmonton Oilers.
But if the Flames don’t find a better way to contain the world’s best player, this series will be over much sooner than anyone thought possible.
He hasn’t just taken over this series.
He is this series.
Three assists in Sunday’s 4-1 win gave No. 97 nine points in the opening three games of a Western Conference semifinal his Oilers now lead 2-1, picking up momentum with every shift he takes.
Maybe there is something to this MVP chant Edmonton fans opened the night with, for eastern viewers to hear.
For the first, and probably only, time this series, the 6 p.m. MT start time was reasonable enough for Toronto residents to see that while Auston Matthews was the NHL’s best goal scorer this season, the world’s best player is still McDavid.
And he’s getting even better, more dominant.
This is no secret to the handful of veteran media types who’ve covered McDavid and several other Oilers greats.
But even they speak of how he’s taken his act to a new level of late, spearheading a playoff performance that saw him become the first player in NHL history to get multiple points in nine of the first 10 games.
It’s not just the points that are doing all the damage, it’s the way he keeps the Flames off balance at all times, spinning off checks, pivoting on a dime, breaking out of his own zone and generally having his way with what was the third-stingiest defensive team this season.
Darryl Sutter changed two of his defensive pairings to try containing McDavid on Sunday, putting Oliver Kylington with Erik Gudbranson, and Michael Stone with Nikita Zadorov.
It didn’t work, as McDavid took turns slicing and dicing around all of them with a series of moves at a speed and difficulty that had a raucous Rogers Place crowd ohhhhing and ahhhhing a handful of times.
Seven years in and the 25-year-old captain still amazes them nightly.
“We let one guy dominate the game,” was Rasmus Andersson’s blunt assessment of a game McDavid broke open early in the second period of a scoreless tie with three slick assists.
“We’ve let one guy beat us a few nights now,” added Matthew Tkachuk.
“Back to the drawing board and figure out a way to stop him next game.”
Good luck with that.
In seven games against the Flames this season, McDavid now has 16 points, continuing a feast he’s enjoyed throughout his career against Calgary.
His 23 points in 10 playoff games is the fourth-best start in playoff history, behind just Wayne Gretzky (29 and 25) and Mario Lemieux (25).
“They’ve got one player that plays half the game and is playing some great hockey right now,” said Tkachuk.
“We’ve got to find a way to stop that. When we get in their zone we’ve got to hold pucks, nothing blind, and get shots to the goalie. That’s where they can have some trouble, with rebounds and lose coverage with that. Just have to have consistent O-zone shifts and not throw anything blind where they can feed their transition.”
The transition is what led to McDavid initiating the tic-tac-toe play that saw Zach Hyman open the scoring in the second period with his sixth of the playoffs.
With the shots 22-7 in favour of the hosts at that point, Kane got to work on a natural hat trick that took exactly six minutes to complete, converting brilliant net-front passes on odd-man rushes from Draisaitl and then McDavid, twice
After keeping the Flames in the first period with 21 saves, Jacob Markstrom, who is losing the goaltending battle against Mike Smith, was replaced for the third period by Dan Vladar.
But not before Milan Lucic caused quite a stir by running into Smith at the end boards, drawing a game misconduct and some five-on-five wrestling.
“They called it charging, correct? Could you imagine if Looch did charge, what would have happened there?” said Sutter, shrugging it off.
“He actually tried to slow it down a little bit, I think. It is what it is. It was the score and who it was. That’s what they called.”
Slowing down McDavid is all that matters now.
The Flames’ season depends on it.
A portion of those who were dancing in the aisles at a rockin’ Rogers Place have seen this sort of dominance before, but the number on that lad’s back was 99 — another noted Flames killer.
It took years for the Flames to come up with an answer for him.
The Flames don’t have that much time.
They’ll need to rebound in time for Tuesday’s rematch or McDavid could return to Calgary with three cracks at single-handedly jettisoning his southern rivals.
The Flames took solace after the game that they have faced an early series deficit like this before, against Dallas in the first round
The difference being, the Stars didn’t have McDavid, Draisaitl or Kane, who has 10 goals in 10 playoff games.
“(Connor McDavid) has been on fire in the playoffs and has taken his game to the next level,” said Kane, whose line had 10 points in the second period.
“He’s not just doing it on the scoresheet. That’s what is allowing him to really showcase his skill. He is physical, he is involved. he is winning puck battles along the wall, both in the defensive and offensive zones. He is a dominant force out there.”
How the Flames can possibly stop him is anyone’s guess.
“We just have to stop him with all five guys that are on the ice, six including Marky,” said Andersson of you-know-who.
“We have to stop him as a unit. One individual can’t stop him. We just have to stop him together.
“We just have to play. I don’t know if we’re worried too much about it, maybe. We have to do a better job on him. The first three games here, we’ve been letting him dominate and that’s why they’re up 2-1.”