McDavid ‘carrying’ Oilers, forces way into thrilling NHL scoring race

Center just 2 points behind MacKinnon, 1 back of Kucherov after uncharacteristic start

Connor McDavid


EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers used to have an intermission promotion featuring a fan who would race a virtual Connor McDavid around the ice with a sizeable head start.

In a city where many fans grew up playing hockey, there were times it seemed the virtual McDavid, programmed to skate at the same speed as the real one, would never be able to make up the difference, but always did.

The NHL scoring race is playing out in a similar fashion. It once looked so far out of reach for McDavid, who got off to a slow start by his own high standards and watched Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, race out well ahead of him.

Yet, with two goals and an assist in a 6-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Place on Saturday, McDavid caught and temporarily pulled ahead of the two for the first time this season, setting up an exciting three-way dash to the Art Ross Trophy.

ANA@EDM: McDavid scores a beautiful breakaway goal in 1st

MacKinnon leads the NHL with 127 points (47 goals, 80 assists) in 74 games; Kucherov has 126 (42 goals, 84 assists) in 72 games.

“It’s nice, I guess; it’s a position I’ve been in many times before,” McDavid said following the game. “We’re playing for things bigger than that. We’re playing to make sure our game is in order and we’re still playing for positioning. Lots of hockey left — 10 games left — you never know what can happen down the stretch and we’ll see what happens.”

McDavid has won the Art Ross as the League scoring champion five times (2017, 2018, 2021, 2022, 2023) in his first eight seasons. It seemed unlikely he would make it four straight with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his first 11 games this season, tied for 107th in the scoring race.

He’s been rapidly climbing the ladder since.

“Not [surprised] at all, but at the same time, we were all struggling early on, so to see him on top right now, it’s pretty awesome,” Oilers defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “You (media) guys have seen his game in the last three months; it’s been unbelievable how he’s been carrying us. He’s the best player in the world, and there is no shock to my mind that he’s there.”

McDavid missed two games with an upper-body injury sustained during a 3-2 overtime loss against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 21, and did not look his dominant self upon his return.

Edmonton got off to 3-9-1 start, which prompted the firing of coach Jay Woodcroft and hiring of Kris Knoblauch on Nov. 12. Since the change, McDavid has 115 points (27 goals, 88 assists) in 59 games. He has 125 points (29 goals, 96 assists) in 70 games overall and is on pace to become the first player to have 100 assists in a season since Wayne Gretzky had 122 for the Los Angeles Kings in 1990-91.

The Oilers (45-23-4) have won three in a row and trail the Vancouver Canucks by four points for first place in the Pacific Division with a game in hand. They are four points ahead of the third-place Vegas Golden Knights and have played two fewer games.

“Never count Connor out or never think he can’t do something,” said Knoblauch, who also coached McDavid at the junior level with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League (2012-15). “He made it very difficult for himself to get to where he is in scoring right now, but I don’t have enough words or time to talk about what Connor can do.

“I was thinking about it today on the bench, and I was amazed when I was watching him in Erie and doing the things that he was doing and that was in junior hockey, and he’s doing the same things here in the National Hockey League. It’s amazing.”

Like all great players McDavid finds ways to elevate his game. Last season, it was scoring 64 goals on his way to winning the Art Ross by 25 points over teammate Leon Draisaitl (153-128). This season, he is striving for 100 assists, joking at one point in the season he was done shooting the puck and was strictly going to focus on setting up his teammates.

Kucherov and MacKinnon have provided another form of motivation for McDavid, giving him a target to strive towards, although the Stanley Cup remains the ultimate prize.

“They are putting together two great years,” McDavid said. “They are two great players who are always right there as well. I think they’ve both played really well and they’re both playing with some special players, just like me here. It’s been fun to watch those two.”

Heading down the stretch, the scoring lead could change a number of times between the three players before it is settled. Everything could come down to an exciting conclusion when the Oilers visit the Avalanche in the final game of the regular season on April 18.

“I did an interview prior to the All-Star Game talking about how with those things I’ve kind of been there and done that, not to say it doesn’t matter or it’s not important, because it is — those things are great,” McDavid said. “But we’re playing for more than that.

“We’re not playing for individual accolades or things like that. If it happens along the way, great. If not, we move on anyway.”

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