Johnston: Oilers need more from Connor McDavid, who has yet to make his mark on the Final

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) skates with the puck Monday during the second period against the Florida Panthers at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla. (Jim Rassol/USA TODAY Sports)

SUNRISE, Fla. — No one needs to remind Connor McDavid that he may never get another chance like this one.

It is only now, after nine long years of putting up video game numbers, that the best hockey player on the planet even found himself in position to compete for the Stanley Cup.


And with his Edmonton Oilers returning home in an 0-2 hole to the Florida Panthers, and with McDavid yet to truly make his mark on the Final, he will embark on the long trip north with the weight of a franchise, a city and a country on his back.

“I’m looking forward to people doubting us again,” he said, with a distinct hint of defiance.

So high has McDavid set the bar that we can basically evaluate his series using the trusty old boxcar stats: One assist, and nothing else to show for the 13 pucks he’s fired toward the net — nine of which got through to Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Those include two partial breakaways at potential momentum-shifting moments in the first period of Game 1 and the third period of Game 2, and both times McDavid came up empty.

That needs to change if Edmonton has any chance of winning this series.

In fact, it needs to change just for them to turn this into the compelling best-of-seven we all thought we were going to get.

“They played better than we did,” said Oilers forward Zach Hyman. “We didn’t have as many looks (as Game 1). We weren’t playing with enough pace, they were controlling the play for the majority of the game.

“You’ve got to find a way to score.”

This is officially the stage of the season where expected goals no longer matter. With five games at most left to be played in the NHL’s 2023-24 campaign, there’s only enough time remaining for the real goals scored to dictate how the history books ultimately get written.

That’s a monumental challenge for McDavid — the most dangerous Oilers performer in the losses at Amerant Bank Arena. He was the common denominator in the few Grade-A chances the team generated during Monday’s 4-1 loss in Game 2, but there are no moral victories to be found on the game’s brightest stage.

“I think our best players have been pretty good,” said Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch. “We’re talking about a different story (if) we (didn’t) hit three goal posts on the power play. We’re probably telling you how good our top players were.”

Still, that doesn’t change the fact McDavid will need to find another gear to get Edmonton past the most complete team in the league. Remember the superhuman effort he summoned to open the scoring against Dallas in Game 6 of the Western Conference final just to set the table for this series?

That’s where the level of expectation is set here.

McDavid leads all playoff scorers with 32 points — 13 more than Florida’s top postseason producer, Matthew Tkachuk, who has yet to find the scoresheet in this series. The list of Florida players still without a goal against Edmonton includes Sam Reinhart, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Bennett, Vladimir Tarasenko and Tkachuk.

Despite that, a Panthers team that allowed the fewest goals against in the NHL this season basically has one hand already grabbing the rounded silver edges of the Stanley Cup. So far, everything is playing in their favor. They’re squeezing the life out of yet another top opponent with a dangerous attack.

“We have levels to go up,” McDavid said. “Just cleaner, better with the puck, a little more finish around the net. That being said, we have to get down there, too. They’re doing a good job all over the ice.”

Naturally, the Oilers’ current predicament isn’t all on McDavid.

Leon Draisaitl still hasn’t recorded a point in the series and took accountability following Monday’s loss by saying he had to be better. In Game 2, Hyman was the only other Edmonton forward to even record a shot on goal. And the NHL’s most feared power play has opened this Final on an ice-cold 0-for-7 stretch.

“I can only speak for myself,” said Draisaitl. “I certainly have a lot more to give. Not my best tonight. Obviously owning that. We’ll regroup and make sure it’ll be better in Game 3.”

This is an empty-the-tanks occasion for the Oilers.

Returning home to what is bound to be a tidal wave of energy and enthusiasm at Rogers Place, they desperately need a win and also have to plant a seed of doubt. Virtually everything has gone Florida’s way.

Home ice will give Knoblauch the last line change and perhaps more opportunity to get McDavid away from Florida’s brilliant shutdown defender Gustav Forsling. There’s also the question of whether Barkov, the Panthers’ Selke-caliber center, will even be able to play after getting knocked out of Game 2 by a leaping, forearm shiver from Draisaitl.

No matter who is on the ice, no matter the circumstances, all eyes will be on McDavid as he tries to scale the sport’s Mount Everest in the same manner Sidney Crosby first did with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2009: By winning four of the last five games after dropping two on the road to start the series.

Asked Monday night what it would take to dig out of this hole, McDavid replied: “You win a game whatever day that is.”

Thursday night in Edmonton. It’s going to be appointment viewing.

You can already mark it down as the most important game of McDavid’s life.

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