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It’s Connor McDavid’s Playoffs

, FLORIDA - JUNE 18: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers skates between teammates Aleksander Barkov #16 and Gustav Forsling #42 of the Florida Panthers in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Final at the Amerant Bank Arena on June 18, 2024 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

This, below, is the moment in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final that Connor McDavid turned from the subject of the clause "if he wins the Conn Smythe" to "when he wins the Conn Smythe." It is also the moment when everyone in Florida who wondered with fearful skepticism if he really was worthy of the nickname McJesus discovered that the order of that homage might be wrong. When’s the last time Jesus had 42 points in 23 games?

As a by-the-numbers-turned-intriguing Final returns to Edmonton tonight, powered by the Oilers' rediscovery of the reason anyone can take them seriously, not giving McDavid the Smythe seems more absurd than not. Sergei Bobrovsky, the Florida goaltender who was the best Smythe candidate through three rounds and three games, has had two very Darcy Kuemper kind of games and is no longer a real factor in the race. No other Panthers, whose scoring is fairly distributed, seem like anything other than a stretch.

That leaves McDavid, whose greatest claim to casual fan fame was being called overrated by Miami Herald/Dan Le Batard Show/ fixture Greg Cote, in a bit that was largely earbait and utterly comedic. Since then, McDavid went from merely the best active player in the game to the inheritor of the crown worn by Wayne Gretzky and only temporarily held since then by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne, Peter Forsberg, Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby again. His 2024 postseason has distanced him from his closest contemporary, Nathan MacKinnon, and has elevated him to that rarest of levels: guy who is so good that the sport's actual outcome is irrelevant to its pecking order.

(And hey, Cote's just moving goods here for the sake of the business, so you needn't take his admittedly crackpot theory too seriously. You're an adult.) 

When Bobrovsky is cheating physics, the Panthers are indomitable; when McDavid stretches Florida's supply lines, Bob is value-neutral. In sum, this series has quite literally pivoted to McDavid's ability to disrupt Florida's basic and effective defensive structure and create time and space for Zach Hyman and Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evan Bouchard. If Florida manages to hold serve in Edmonton, not a preposterous thought given that the home team is only 40-46 in these playoffs, they will get the parade and the ring and the name on the trophy and all the things all hockey players fantasize about while in utero. But it's now clear that this would be a nothing series without McDavid dragging it from the furnace of hell, and that's enough to make him a better example of individual gifts overcoming the scoreboard than Reggie Leach or Jerry West or Chuck Howley or Bobby Richardson, just to name the four non-goalie/non-pitcher/non-winning playoff MVPs in North American sports history. 

McDavid turned a desultory sweep, the first in 26 years, into a potentially historical Panther tracheotomy. Suddenly this is a series worth getting stuck into because, while the Oilers are almost addicted to the magic dust of McDavid, the Panthers are the more fascinating story because they have to create an answer to the question, "So what are you going to do about it?" 

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