As hockey players, Connor McDavid and Kris Russell could hardly be more different.
One is the fastest man in the NHL, maybe the fastest to ever play the game, and certainly the brightest and most dynamic star in the league.
The other is an under-sized, shot-blocking defenceman with the courage of a lion-tamer, who averages about four goals a season.
On Thursday, in a game the Edmonton Oilers had to win, the unlikely duo teamed up for a massive goal that gave their team the lead and gave fans at Rogers Place a chance to really celebrate for the first time in almost 154 minutes.
In hockey time, that’s an eternity.
Captain Connor leads the way
The two points the Oilers earned with Thursday’s 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks — Mike Cammalleri and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored the shoot-out goals to clinch the victory — lifted a little weight off a lot of shoulders, fans and players alike.
The biggest shoulders, once again, belonged to Captain Connor, whose gaudy numbers on the night included five shots on goal, 13 of 20 faceoff wins, and more than 24 minutes of ice time. All at high speed.
“He skated a hundred miles at a hundred miles per hour,” coach Todd McLellan said of his captain.
“That’s not an easy team to play against. Connor showed tremendous leadership tonight. I thought he said, ‘Follow me, I’m going to do it right, I’m going to do it fast, and you guys come along.’ And everybody did.”
Yes, indeed, The Oilers outshot the Ducks 13-2 in the first period. Including blocked and missed shots, Anaheim directed only six pucks at Oilers goalie Cam Talbot during the first 20 minutes. Yes, the Oilers were that dominant.
But the game remained scoreless, and Oilers fans, starved for goals, likely remained nervous, until halfway through the second.
Russell scores huge goal
That’s when Milan Lucic scooped the puck in his own zone and fed a pass to McDavid. The captain raced into the Ducks zone with Jesse Puljujarvi hustling to keep up. Russell was the trailer on the play and cashed a perfect McDavid pass for his third goal of the season.
The goal snapped a scoreless stretch that included two 5-0 losses on home ice against Winnipeg and Los Angeles.
The Ducks turned up the heat in the second period, outshooting the home team 15-8. Despite some of McDavid’s world-class creative work, the Oilers just couldn’t find a way to extend their lead.
As the Ducks shifted the momentum, the Oilers not only flirted with danger, they snuggled right up to danger, kissed danger on the mouth, made a long-term commitment to date danger exclusively, took danger home to meet the parents, bought danger a promise ring.
What they didn’t do was panic, or run around in circles, or revert to previous bad habits.
‘I wasn’t as anxious as maybe I’ve been in other situations.’ — Oilers coach Todd McLellan on Thursday’s 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim
“They showed signs of doing things the right way,” McLellan said. “[The Ducks] had their push, and I thought we weathered the storm pretty well. So I wasn’t as anxious as maybe I’ve been in other situations.”
Eighteen seconds into the third, the Oilers paid the price for all that danger, when Ryan Kesler tied the score on a Ducks power play.
From that point, it became a goaltending battle. Talbot and Ducks goalie John Gibson had great games and made numerous game-saving stops.
The Oilers were solid all night defensively. The power play remains sketchy, to say the least, but the penalty kill looked better than it has in recent games.
Down to one leg, but not out
Back, for a moment, to Russell, who made two memorable defensive plays in his own zone.
On the first, with his team out-manned, he sprawled on the ice to take away a passing lane that could have led to a dangerous scoring chance.
On the second, as he so often does, he blocked a wicked slap shot that clearly hurt and hobbled him. Obviously in great pain, he couldn’t get off the ice for a change. With the team pinned in their zone, Russell soldiered on for the next 30 seconds on one good leg.
Little plays like that, gutsy plays like that, help win hockey games.
“I didn’t take it on the best spot,” Russell said of that stinging shot. “[The leg] goes a little sore, it’s tough to put any weight on it.”
Late in the period, McDavid held his own Indy 500 inside the Ducks blue-line. He circumnavigated the zone so fast nine other skaters could only swivel their heads to watch. The puck eventually slipped off his stick, but McDavid had built up so much speed that though it drifted well past centre ice, he was able to retrieve it easily. The play amounted to nothing in terms of scoring chances. But the crowd applauded anyway, because that’s what fans do when they see something incredible.
“He led the way,” Russell said of the McDavid. “There’s a reason the young guy wears the C. We look for him to do a lot of things, and tonight I thought he carried the torch.”
By the way, McDavid’s assist snapped a three-game pointless streak, the longest of his career. Think about that for a minute.