McDavid SCF Game 3 TONIGHT bug

EDMONTON -- Connor McDavid’s route from his stall to the ice at Rogers Place for practice Wednesday took him right past the five replica Stanley Cups that are displayed at the entrance of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room.

Seconds later, as he stepped onto the surface, he was greeted by the backdrop of the names of Oilers greats of yesteryear that were displayed on one of the arena’s facades -- Hall of Famers like Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier and, of course, the greatest of them all, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky.

Coffey, for that matter, was on the ice as one of the Oilers’ assistant coaches.

Here in this cathedral of hockey, there are reminders everywhere you look that you can’t escape the expectations of a franchise with one of the richest traditions in NHL history. If you consider yourself to be one of the best, if you want to be held in the same standard and reverence as some of the greats, leading a team to a championship is the primary requirement.

It’s the type of pressure many players would shy away from, especially with the spotlight of the Stanley Cup Final intensifying with the series shifting to hockey-mad Edmonton, starting with Game 3 against the Florida Panthers on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, TVAS, SN).

Not Connor McDavid.

The Oilers captain is ready to embrace the challenge of his team being down 2-0 in the best-of-7 series. Shy away from it? Not McDavid.

His mantra: Bring it on.

"We've been down and out lots this year,” he said after practice Wednesday. “We've been down and out lots throughout the playoffs. It's nothing new to this group.

“Where does that come from? I think it comes from just such a big will to win. Our group wants to win as bad as I've seen. Not to say other groups don't want to win and not to say that Florida doesn't want to win, because they sure do.

“But our group has willed our way out of situations, and I think we have an opportunity to do that here in this series as well.”

No one wearing a blue-and-orange Oilers jersey has more will to win than McDavid. And no one has more drive to lead his teammates out of this deficit either.

It’s a trait Edmonton coach Kris Knoblach saw while coaching McDavid with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2014-15, the forward’s final junior season.

“I’ve known Connor for a while,” Knoblauch said. “I remember when he was 17, obviously coached him a year and a half at 15, 16, then came back as a 17-year-old, his last year of junior and he was our captain. But I remember that summer, I didn’t want to put that on him. I just didn’t think a 17-year-old in junior hockey was really your leader. Obviously, he was going to be our best player and I wasn’t sure who exactly our captain was going to be, but I didn’t think it was going to be him.”

It didn’t take McDavid long to convince Knoblauch otherwise.

“About a week into training camp, seeing him conduct himself, talk to the players, how encouraging he was, how hard he worked, I realized he was our leader, he was our captain, and he ended up being our captain and was outstanding all season,” he said.

“What I saw of him at 17, I see what he’s doing here – leading, leading by example on the ice. You watch practice today, he was our best player on the ice. Every drill, moving as fast as he could, trying to make every play. In the dressing room I’ve heard him talk to the team, whether that’s been on the bench or the dressing room, and saying the right things, getting the guys focused on what we need to do.

“I think he’s been an outstanding leader for us.”

Even if that means absorbing blame for the Oilers’ shortcomings, including during those times when he individually might not be the major cause of them.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” said Edmonton forward Connor Brown, one of McDavid’s teammates with Erie a decade ago. “He takes responsibility on his own shoulders. Before he put it on anybody else's, he would look in the mirror and think about every which way he could have been better before he looks at anybody else.

“I think that's why guys love that he’s our leader.”

The crew on the keys needed for the Oilers offense

Now comes yet another litmus test for him to that end.

Through two games in the series, the 27-year-old leads the Oilers in shots with nine and has arguably been their most dangerous player. In the process, there were times that he left the capacity pro-Panthers crowd at Amerant Bank Arena murmuring from a mixture of awe and fear, whether it be from his raw speed bursts or from one of his dipsy-doodling stickhandling forays.

But in a results-oriented business, it hasn’t been enough for the Oilers, or him. Edmonton has scored one goal in two games, both losses. McDavid has one point in the series, an assist, while fellow forwards Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl have zero.

Simply not good enough.

In their defense, the Oilers have changed the momentum of their fate several times this season. They went from a 3-9-1 start and a coaching change Nov. 12 from Jay Woodcroft to Knoblauch and converted that to a second-place finish in the Pacific Division. In separate best-of-7 series this spring, they trailed the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in the Western Conference Second Round and the Dallas Stars 2-1 in the conference final yet came back to win both.

Now, here McDavid is, entering Game 3 of the Cup Final with the Oilers facing their toughest adversity yet, his legacy and theirs hanging in the balance, at least for the time being.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

"There's definitely a certain confidence from knowing that we've been in difficult situations and succeeded and fought our way back,” he said. “We've talked a lot about that certainly, but that's because we found ourselves in difficult positions a lot throughout the year and throughout the playoffs.

“This would be certainly one of those situations. It's not ideal, but I look forward to the opportunity of our group. I said this after Game 2, but I look forward to the opportunity for our group of coming together one last time to dig our way out.”

Here in a place that once billed itself as the “City of Champions” during the Oilers’ run of five Stanley Cup championships (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990), that’s the type of leadership both teammates and fans here are looking for.

And, fair or not, expect.