CALGARY — Connor McDavid was last to enter his dressing room postgame and the roar of his teammates upon his entry could be heard halfway around the arena.
The overtime hero capped a remarkable performance in the Battle of Alberta, not just his 12 points but the manner in which he produced, cracking open a stingy Flames team like he was playing pond hockey.
There were plays and moments in this series from No. 97 that simply took your breath away.
“That was unreal,’’ Wayne Gretzky said after the Oilers’ 5-4 series-clinching win in Game 5. “Pretty unique. I don’t know if words can describe it.”
I guess Gretzky now feels how the rest of us did during his own heyday; we ran out of words to describe his domination some nights.
I think back to Gretzky’s overtime goal against Calgary in Game 2 of the Smythe Division final in 1988. In this very rink.
Now McDavid has his own OT magic to win the Battle of Alberta. His goal celebration said it all. That was an iconic moment in a career that will have plenty others.
CONNOR MCDAVID ADVANCES THE OILERS TO THE WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL WITH AN OT GOAL.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) May 27, 2022
“That was great,’’ McDavid said. “Hard to put into words what that meant to me. Got great performances from a bunch of different guys. Just happy to contribute on a night where I maybe didn’t have my best.’’
Imagine what that self-standard must look like. Just happy to contribute? Yeah, ok.
McDavid has lifted a franchise on his shoulders and raised his game to a level over the last few weeks that’s never been seen before. Plain and simple.
“Auston Matthews will get a lot of votes and is very deserving of the Hart Trophy (if he wins it) but I just really felt over the last 25 games of the season, Connor put the team on his back and has gone to another level,’’ Gretzky said.
Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said Thursday night after the series that the best player won the series.
No one’s going to argue that on the Oilers.
“He means everything to us,’’ Leon Draisaitl said.
And how about Draisaitl? Hobbling into the series and playing through an injury, he ends up with 17 points in the five games and seemed to get better with every game.
Gretzky said he had a feeling before the game that Draisaitl would need to have a night for the Oilers to be able to clinch the series.
“That’s exactly what happened, Leon was special tonight and consequently, Connor got the big goal and Leon made the play,’’ said Gretzky, who had a few of those moments with a guy named Jari Kurri on his wing.
Draisaitl’s four-assist night left him tied for the NHL playoff-scoring lead with McDavid at 26 points.
“He was amazing,’’ McDavid said of Draisaitl. “That’s all you can really say. It’s hard to really put into words how amazing he was out there. Every single game he dominated from start to finish. It was fun to watch.’’
The series-clinching win also featured Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft tinkering with his lines after a slow start, most notably swapping Zach Hyman and Evander Kane, the former joining McDavid’s line with Draisaitl. Which produced results.
There have been few missteps by the rookie Oilers head coach since he took over Feb. 10, which was noted by Gretzky.
“Jay Woodcroft deserves a lot of credit,” Gretzky said. “He came in and really changed the complexion of the team. As crazy as it sounds, he cut back Connor and Leon’s ice time a little bit, not a lot, but a little bit. Which enticed other guys in that group to feel part of it.
“Consequently, he ended up with a third and fourth line that were battling for ice time and contributing to the team. That goes a long way. Connor and Leon weren’t as exhausted after every game.’’
As the Oilers celebrated on the ice Thursday night, I thought back to a few years ago when things were pretty bleak.
“There’s something in the water here.”
It was a zinger of a comment from Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson at a January 2019 news conference announcing Peter Chiarelli’s firing as GM that certainly resonated.
“There’s something in the water here in Edmonton we don’t have right,’’ Nicholson said at the time. “And we’ve got to get that figured out.’’
Three and a half years later, with a few soul-crushing playoff losses along the way, and even a coaching change to help save this season, McDavid’s crew has finally broken through to another level.
They’re only halfway to where they want to be this spring but in the context of what felt like a path to nowhere back in January 2019, certainly a feeling of accomplishment as far as what things should in fact look like when you’ve got the best player in the world on your team and you assemble the pieces around him.
“You know what, it’s the whole group, Connor’s the leader but there’s so many other players that have stepped up,’’ Nicholson said Thursday.
“(GM) Ken Holland has brought so much expertise into it, has created a real culture of winning. When Jay (Woodcroft) came in, I have to give Jay a lot of credit, he made a team. We had great players but he really made it a team. To me that’s what it’s about, the whole organization making the team we are.
“But winning the Battle of Alberta is special. It’s special in hockey and special in this province.’’
Is it ever.
“It’s just really a special moment for the entire city of Edmonton,’’ Gretzky said. “I think they’re probably as happy as they’ve ever been winning a playoff series.’’
Nothing wrong with the water in Edmonton now.
Other than they’ve got a player who apparently can walk on it.
Before we hung up, Gretzky asked me to tell McDavid how happy he was for him scoring that huge goal.
I passed on the message. McDavid smiled.
This was a night he won’t soon forget.
(Photo: Sergei Belski / USA Today)