“The greats always deliver. The greats, they never disappoint.” — Kevin Lowe.
EDMONTON — It doesn’t take a savant to recognize the stage. To look at the schedule, see a Hockey Night in Canada game and an opportunity to make coast-to-coast memories, and realize how cool it would be to score a 100th point in game No. 53. Or, on another unforgettable Northern Alberta night, a 50th goal in 39 games.
But as Lowe points out, it is one thing to skate out under that spotlight, but quite another deliver like a Gretzky or a McDavid.
“Honestly, it’s impressive. I don’t think my English is good enough to find another word for it right now,” said Leon Draisaitl, whose second goal of the evening — a patented McDavid-to-Draisaitl one-timer — marked Connor McDavid’s 100th point in just 53 games this season. “Everyone, the 20 people who were in the building, were all counting.”
It is a crime that such a moment — such a season — could occur before section after section of empty chairs. You know the fans would have been counting, even if McDavid didn’t let on to being overly excited about this chase.
“I was trying not to think about it,” he said. “I was trying to get myself ready to go in the playoffs and keep my game where it needs to be. Obviously when you’re sitting around 96, 97, 98 points and you get to 99, it’s in the back of your mind. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait too long to get there.”
On a night when he needed four points to reach triple figures, McDavid crushed it before the second intermission — a clinical, dominant and utterly breathtaking performance. This was a man that hasn’t met a challenge in this game that he hasn’t whipped, who had suddenly found a new one to tackle.
Like a math prodigy who stumbles upon some erotic new equation, or a virtuoso with a crazy hard piece of music, McDavid found himself four points away from 100 points with four games to play and a Saturday night game on the schedule.
Why not, he likely thought?
“It’s a thrill, and a memory,” said his head coach, Dave Tippett. “It solidifies that he is one of the top players to ever play the game. The level that he played at this year, what he’s accomplished, when you look at Wayne or Mario, it’s one of those years where he’s taken his talents to another level. It’s just elite.”
How awesome have Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews been this season? McDavid has more assists (68) than either Leaf has points!
McDavid paid little heed to the chase over the past 10 days or so, blockering aside all of our questions. But if you saw him play Saturday night, you could tell.
“Players like that, the best players in any sport,” began Darnell Nurse, “they have the ability to put all that side noise to the side. Play and perform, and worry about the game at hand.”
Gretzky knew. Well, he sort of knew.
When No. 99 was chasing 50 goals in less than 50 games, he told his father Walter, “Why don’t you catch a flight out to Vancouver? We play the Canucks on New Year’s Eve, the night after the Philly game in Edmonton.”
Then the goals started coming against the Flyers, and on Dec. 30, 1981, Gretzky scored five times to give hockey a set of numerals that need no explanation: 50 in 39.
“It was electric,” said the Flyers goalie that night, Pete Peeters. “It’s the only time I ever argued with my coach, Pat Quinn. He was pulling me for the extra attacker, because it was 6-5 (and Gretzky had four goals). I told him, ‘Pat, if you pull me he’s gonna score. And if he’s going to get his 50th, he’s got to earn it on a goalie.’
“But we went for the extra attacker, and sure enough…”
Speaking from his Northern Alberta farm, where Peeters had just sheared the last of his alpaca herd, it was suggested that perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time that December night.
“I didn’t look at it that way at all,” said Peeters, now 63. “I’m proud to have played against him, and be a part of that night. He could have had more than four against me, I’ll tell you that. I let four in and I thought I played pretty doggone good.”
Gretzky had been scoring like some kind of cyborg in the run-up to that game, with 10 goals his previous four games. Then he delivered five in the clincher.
McDavid? Identical dominance.
In the 10 games prior to Saturday, the Oilers captain had eight goals and 19 assists. Then, under the bright lights of HNIC, a four-point night to etch his name into our memories.
He walked in on his first shift of the game and rifled a shot past Thatcher Demko just 45 seconds into the evening. He transported the puck all the way down the ice and dropped a quick pass that Jesse Puljujarvi one-timed home. He dropped another to James Neal, who moved it over to Draisaitl for a one-time snapper that counted as Draisaitl’s 500th career point.
Then, like Gretzky to Kurri, McDavid found Draisaitl on a five-on-three.
“He set me up a few times before that,” Draisaitl said of that powerplay. “I was surprised that he tried one more time for a third shot, and I could sense in the pass that he didn’t have the trust in me anymore that he usually has.
“He usually has a little bit of zip to his passes. This time it was a little wobbly.”
Wobbly, like the empty netter past a diving Bill Barber that counted as Gretzky’s 50th. In both cases, the celebrations belied a group of teammates who were over the moon to be a part of such a moment.
“We were just astonished, even though we had seen everything he’d done. It was ridiculous,” Lowe recalled. “It was one of those things where it doesn’t surprise you when they’re doing it. But it occurs to you at some point, ‘This is as good as it gets.’
“You’ll never see it again.”
Well, didn’t we all think that, back in 1981?