PITTSBURGH – The coach – or in the Edmonton Oilers case, coach – always talks about the difficulty of exceeding his defensive mistakes. On the flip side, who better than Connor McDavid to test that theory?
But one night when Edmonton lost in Pittsburgh, a tight game of late-night nights, it was McDavid's minus 2 that stood out more than the one who helped him succeed with a 3-1 loss.
McDavid and the first power-play unit were dissuasive because Bryan Rust could go out behind goal and make a short-cut goal to tie the match to 1-1, and then McDavid Teddy Blueger got past him in defensive zone in 2-1 goal. Blueger was wide open in the castle to rifle home a pass for the goal, and despite a lot of donors, it stands as a winner.
"Kind of a tricky game," says McDavid, who was at the end of a long shift. "He came in for a change and he was the tall guy and he drove straight to the net. I'm not sure who he was. Maybe mine."
On the short-term goal, Leon Draisaitl acknowledged: "We must be a little more aware of that situation. We played it a little too loose. But we had more than enough chances to tie it up later."
"We can't give it up," added McDavid, now winless in six games against Sidney Crosby. "We got a chance to maybe go up two. Not good."
Look: McDavid (not Draisaitl) is nowhere near the problem in Edmonton. He is by far their brightest light, of course, and if he is not the best player in the world today, he is the second behind the man wearing No. 87 for Pittsburgh Wednesday. You simply cannot say enough about him as a player. He is the longest thing from the question regarding this mess in Edmonton.
But big players play at both ends of the rink and at the 22-year-old McDavid's game is not yet complete. This was the rare night when two salmon defensive efforts both ended up in his network, and McDavid – despite a penalty shot and some fine offensive efforts – was unable to erase the deficit against a stellar Matt Murray in the Pittsburgh network.
"Maybe I left them for a long time on the 2-1 goal," offered chief executive Ken Hitchcock. "Tired of the shift and it's on me. We had a lot of chances to tie it up and I have to find a way to wear a pair."
It would also not hurt if any of the other lines broke in, how a couple of deep boys did for the penguins. But then it is for Edmonton's two young stars – they are on an island here, and who the new GM is, is his first priority to find them some help on the wing.
Meanwhile, Crosby had a plus-1 night of assistance. If or when McDavid gets Croby's level of defensive awareness, we can bury the debate about who is the best player in the NHL.
Hitchcock was an assistant coach from Canada in Vancouver, Vancouver, where Crosby scored the golden goal.
"When we were training, there were times when we would tell us," What the hell is he doing? Where's he going? "Did Hitchcock claim." Well, he practiced games that weren't connected to the drill we did. And then you would see it appear in a game.
"The bigger the game, the more he was a factor. When the games got bigger, he just got on a higher level that no one else could get."
McDavid was a teenager when he saw the game, and it wasn't the last time he wondered about something that Crosby did. There are not many guys in hockey that a player with McDavid's skill set will look to look for a tip or two.
Of course, Crosby is one.
"How strong is he," McDavid said. "Like the low center man playing against him, he is so strong on his skates. So worn. He's hard to beat the puck, which is a good quality to have."
If there is a place where McDavid's game will still mature, it is so strong to play low in both zones. Crosby is hard to knock out the puck when he has it, and doesn't let you get to his net when he doesn't.
"I think I'm pretty strong on my skates, but probably not to that level," McDavid said. "In the end, I'll never be as bright or as wide as he is, but it's definitely things you can work on."
It is the strictly defensive game that the league's best player finally finds, and if an annual Art Ross candidate can become difficult to play against defensive, then you have the complete superstar.
"Sid thinks of a level, when the other team has the puck, it's above everyone else in the league," Hitchcock said. "His expectation when the other team has the puck is so high, he knows where it goes before the time. He can pick out the passports, make you wrong … And then he also knows where you are on the ice so he can Turn it into a scoring opportunity.
"Connor has it in him. He sniffs out dangerously offensive. Sid thinks it's defensive – he has both gone.
"That's where Connor will come to."