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The Oilers Bailed Out Connor McDavid And He Returned The Favor

DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 23: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers reacts after his game winning goal against the Dallas Stars during the second overtime in Game One of the Western Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 23, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

A blogger does so love it when a narrative illustrates itself this heavy-handedly. The story of the Edmonton Oilers' season, regular and post-, has been about learning to win without Connor McDavid scoring his usual ludicrous amount of goals. When McDavid went to the penalty box for four minutes for drawing blood with a high stick on Matt Duchene just 17 seconds into overtime, the mission became literal: hold the fort without the captain.

Edmonton's suddenly mighty penalty kill did just that, denying the Stars any great chances, with Stuart Skinner cleaning up the four shots that did get through. McDavid more than repaid any debts accrued when, early in the second overtime, he scored just his third of the playoffs, a winner to put the Oilers out front in the Western Conference Final.

McDavid threw some sort of selflessness lever this year, recording his lowest goal total since his sophomore season yet racking up 100 assists for the second-highest point total of his career. (He's also a vertiginous 3-20-23 in the postseason.) The Oilers in turn achieved a little bit more of the balanced offense they've long sought, with especial thanks to Zach Hyman's finishing prowess and Evan Bouchard's emergence as an ice-tilting force.

If it's nice that McDavid doesn't have to do it all himself, he's still the guy who makes things happen. The Oilers are 6-0 in the playoffs when he records multiple points, including Thursday night, and just 1-4 when he doesn't. So when McDavid picked up a double minor to open OT, in a game in which Edmonton had already squandered a two-goal lead, it was tough to see this one going much later into the night.

"The longest four minutes of his life," Derek Ryan said McDavid called it on the bench. McDavid was even more effusive at the microphone: "It was long. Really long. Really, really long. Miserable. I hated every second of it." 

But these are not your slightly older brother's Oilers. They are defensively solid. They have some two-way depth. They have successfully killed off their last 19 penalties. To the PK units, four minutes was just another challenge. “It’s almost like our guys were excited to get out there, like ‘We have a job to do and we’re going to go do it,'” coach Kris Knoblauch said.

This series, despite featuring some of the flashiest and most spectacular players on the planet on both teams, already feels like it's going to be a slog, and not in a boring way. Game 1 was a game where each side had to fight the fundamental battles—along the boards, in the neutral zone, in front of the net—to spring its skill for just a half-second of open ice. And even then, goalies had their say. It's playoff hockey, baby. Every scoring chance must be hard-won; the margins are razor-thin. The Oilers are not, traditionally, a team who has won those battles in the margins, and they are not, for all their improvements this year, a deeper or better-rounded team than Dallas. But in a series so tightly matched that every win is going to feel at least a little bit like it was stolen, the Oilers have drawn first blood.

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