No matter if Connor McDavid is on the ice or sitting in a warm suite, the Edmonton Oilers are viewing the Heritage Classic like a chance to hit the reset button on their season.
The Oilers are off to a dreadful start, winning just one of their first seven games. McDavid, the reigning Hart Trophy winner, has missed the team’s last two games with an upper-body ailment.
His absence was noticeable in Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Rangers, which, save for a couple of goalposts and some spectacular saves from Stuart Skinner, could have been far worse.
Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said that McDavid skated Thursday, but was noncommittal if the superstar would be available for Sunday’s tilt at Commonwealth Stadium against the Calgary Flames.
“We have time till our next game, so we’ll see how he is (Friday),” said Woodcroft. “He skated (Thursday) so I take that as a good sign.”
The Oilers have a day off Friday. The Flames (2-5-1) and Oilers (1-5-1) will both practice at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday evening. The Flames were booed off the ice by the home fans at the Saddledome Thursday, after a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Woodcroft said that McDavid knows his body than anyone else, and that the centre will be the one to best determine if he can function well enough in below-zero temperatures and the chippy ice that’s so common in outdoor games.
The Oilers’ power play, which was humming along at a 30 per cent clip before McDavid got hurt, is one-for-seven over the past two games. McDavid, who led the league with 153 points in 2022-23, had eight points in five games before he left Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
But it’s not like the Oilers were lighting the NHL on fire when McDavid was healthy. The team was 1-3-1 in games that he played. The Oilers have surrendered 30 goals in seven games, the second-worst mark in the league. McDavid is a forward, not a defenceman or a goalie. And the Oilers have been outscored 10-1 in third periods of games, which is a collective effort — or lack of one.
Over and over, the Oilers repeated that the spectacle of Sunday’s game gives the team a chance to refocus — and begin the season anew. Throw out the first seven games, and start from scratch.
“It’s an opportunity,” said winger Zach Hyman, who has seven points so far this season. “It’s a game that’s unlike any other game we’ll play this year. Let’s get going, here. Let’s get kick-started. It’s a kick in the butt.
“We want to show up for family, friends, fans in a big game. Everybody is going to remember that game.”
If McDavid plays or not, Woodcroft said the Heritage Classic allows his team the chance to change its focus. He admitted that hockey isn’t fun for a team that he repeatedly said was “in a mud puddle.” Being outdoors, in front of the largest crowd of the season, in a game against the Oilers’ fiercest rival, that could be the spark the team needs.
“The way I’ve always thought about that game is that we would deal with it when we came to it,” said Woodcroft. “The first seven games of the season are done, our focus is on game eight. It is outdoors.
“There is going to be a lot of excitement in the city, it’s something different. Our hope is that maybe this is something that jumpstarts us, that gets us all on the same page.”
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has six points this season after a 104-point campaign in 22-23, said having family flying into town will give the players a bit of time to decompress.
“If we don’t use this as an opportunity, then I don’t know what we’re doing here,” he said. “We’re going to have a skate on Saturday, bring our families out, and just kind of take a step back and enjoy it for what it is.”
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