Stanley Cup Final: Connor McDavid has a chance to do something not even Wayne Gretzky ever did

To be considered the greatest player in the history of the Edmonton Oilers is to be considered the greatest player in the history of hockey.

Connor McDavid has, at least in the eyes of his family, been projected to contend for the latter since his father lied about his age so the little wonderkid who was rollerblading and blasting shots down in the basement could join an actual youth league before he was allowed. Connor was 3 at the time.

McDavid has been projected, at least among the dreams of Oiler fans, to contend for the former since the stars aligned in 2015 and Edmonton had first overall pick just as he turned 18, fresh off a junior season where he racked up 120 points in just 47 games.

And so Wayne Gretzky’s old team got the next — maybe — Wayne Gretzky; the hockey gods paying the franchise and fan base back 27 years after the original bailed out on a Stanley Cup juggernaut for Los Angeles.

Gretzky remains Gretzky, even all these years later, a seemingly impossible comparison to meet, just a record book full of cartoon numbers.

Yet it’s not stats that Oiler fans covet. It’s not even the nightly brilliance of how McDavid pulls off his goals and his assists. All of that is fun, especially across those cold Northern Alberta winters and into outdoor summer watch parties.

In the end, though, the NHL is all about the Stanley Cup and only the Stanley Cup, something Edmonton hasn’t seen since 1990.

Enter McDavid and Friday night, Game 6 back home, trailing Florida 3-2 but with a chance to do something not even Gretzky ever did — bring a team back from a 3-0 deficit in the Final. It hasn’t been done by anyone since 1942.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal during the third period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Florida Panthers, Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. The Oilers defeated the Panthers 5-3. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Connor McDavid has eight points in the last two games to keep Edmonton alive and for Game 6. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

To say this is all McDavid isn’t accurate or fair. Hockey is the ultimate team game. Even McDavid is averaging fewer than 24 minutes of ice time in the Final.

Yet there is no minimizing what he is in the middle of potentially doing. Florida is a phenomenal team. Behind a relentless forecheck and stars such as Aleksander Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky, they overwhelmed everyone in these playoffs, including Edmonton in the first three games. The Cup seemed to be won.

Since then, though, the Oilers have outscored the Panthers 13-4 and made them delay two Cup celebrations — including one on South Beach — to, in McDavid’s words, “drag them back to Alberta” and contend with what should be a deafening Rogers Place.

With booming ESPN/ABC ratings and the NBA Finals complete, this is one of the most anticipated NHL games in memory — the best player in the sport trying to continue to make history against what nearly everyone believed was the best team in the league.

It is McDavid, 27, leading the way in every way, his full talent and full promise on display on the biggest stage. He has eight points in the last two games. His 42 points in the playoffs are just five shy of Gretzky’s record 47 in 1985. He’s doing it with flair, but also grit and determination, the perfect player at the perfect time. His highlight-reel-plays seemingly impossible to stop.

“He puts this team on his back,” teammate Corey Perry said. “When we’re against the wall, he puts us on his back and he plays.”

This is McDavid — seemingly unfazed by the pressure, just dominating the game the way he always did growing up in suburban Toronto.

“You spend your life working and to get into a position like this,” McDavid said Thursday. “When you are here you expect some magic feeling [but] it’s been pretty normal.”

This is what Edmonton fans rightfully expected when McDavid arrived. They knew what generational greatness looked like and there was little doubt McDavid had it. Maybe he wouldn’t be as great as Gretzky — or maybe he would — but he also didn’t need to be. He just needed to be great.

McDavid has delivered — he should win a fourth Hart Trophy this season — but the franchise has not. Success came slowly — it took seven seasons to reach a conference finals. Hockey was left with the kind of head-turning dynamic star playing for middling teams mostly late at night and far from the spotlight of the postseason.

It came together this season. The Oilers won 16 consecutive games at one point, just behind the record 17 by Pittsburgh in 1992-93. Now they sit two games from the Cup with momentum, if it is such a thing, at their back.

Gretzky led the Oilers to four cups in five years in the mid to late 1980s, but then left for the LA Kings in what is considered by some a day of local, if not national, mourning.

He has said through the years that had he stayed in Edmonton on a team that still had Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Esa Tikkanen, Grant Fuhr and others, he thought they could have won four or more Cups (they won one without him in 1990 anyway).

From those glory days has come a seemingly endless drought, even with the next great hockey star on the roster. A week ago, this season seemed doomed too. Friday is different though, a new chance, a new time.

Connor McDavid has dragged Florida back to Alberta, dragged the Oilers back from the brink. One more game to force one more game, and perhaps fulfill a legacy everyone saw coming.