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McDavid raises game for Oilers

In disappointing season, captain elevates play to help Edmonton finish strong, believe in future

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- The Edmonton Oilers' fate with respect to qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs was sealed weeks ago, lagging too far back to be in striking distance of the postseason after reaching the Western Conference Second Round in 2017.

Yet Oilers captain Connor McDavid hasn't allowed that to drag down his play.

Last season's Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner scored two goals with an assist to help the Oilers to a 4-1 victory against the Minnesota Wild at Rogers Place on Saturday, moving him closer to the top of the NHL scoring race.

McDavid, with 84 points (33 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games, has surged to third in the race, four points behind leader Nikita Kucherov (34 goals, 54 assists) of the Tampa Bay Lightning and one behind Evgeni Malkin (38 goals, 47 assists) of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Video: MIN@EDM: McDavid buries own rebound to open scoring

At the NHL All-Star break, McDavid was tied for 10th in the scoring race with 54 points (15 goals, 39 assists), 10 points back of Kucherov.

In his past 19 games, McDavid has 30 points (18 goals, 12 assists) and his two-goal game against the Wild was his 22nd multiple-point game this season.

"He's the captain, he's got all the talent in the world and I think he's a little bit sour and a little bit bitter with how the year has gone," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "He's not going to go away whimpering and when your leader does that, it forces everybody else to play their game.

"Connor has been doing and I noticed even in practice, we don't practice that long at this time of year, but when it's time to go, he is very aggressive in practice. He is working on his game and everybody else seems to follow, so we're lucky to have him."

The Oilers (30-34-4, 64 points) are 16 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference but McDavid eyes other purposes for their final 14 games.

"I'm just looking to finish out the season strong with the team and individually as well," he said, asked if he's thinking about the scoring race. "This is a growing period for our group to feel good about ourselves going into the summer and coming into next year."

In wake of all their frustration this season, the Oilers have been focusing on small steps to create positivity heading into the offseason and then the 2018-19 season.

Some of that involves experimentation. Against the Wild, McLellan decided it was time to see what center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looked like as McDavid's left wing. Pontus Aberg, traded to the Oliers by the Nashville Predators for center Mark Letestu on Feb. 25, played right wing with McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins on Saturday.

"It's something that we want to try, whether there's people or media people screaming for it, it's something that we want to try and we want to experiment with," McLellan said. "We used him (Nugent-Hopkins) there at the World Cup and he was effective, but we're also trying to get Leon (Draisaitl, who often plays on McDavid's line) skating, I didn't think he skated well in the game before, but he was much better tonight. He has a tendency to skate better in that center-ice position."

McDavid gave the Saturday experiment a thumbs-up. Nugent-Hopkins scored an empty-net goal and had an assist.

Video: MIN@EDM: Nugent-Hopkins notches 300th point with ENG

"I like it a lot," McDavid said. "I like playing with [Nugent-Hopkins] and I like playing with (Aberg) as well. Both their games were really good I thought [Nugent-Hopkins] was solid defensively and was able to make plays, and (Aberg) has that great shot."

Another sign that McDavid is in a groove is shots on goal. Against Minnesota, he had three shots. He came into the game with 16 in his previous two games

McDavid has heard the pleas to take more shots, from his teammates, his coaches and Oilers fans.

"I'm not too sure … I'm trying to make the right play, play what I see all the time," he said. "If it's a shot, it's a shot. If it's a pass, it's a pass. You can shoot the puck more but ultimately if there's a play to be made, you need to make that play."

Goalie Cam Talbot, who made 32 saves against the Wild, said shooting is the key to McDavid's increased impact of late. 

"He's being Connor McDavid," Talbot said. "It's just what he does. I think maybe he's shooting the puck a little more, which he needed to do. He's got a heck of a shot and he tends to pass it off a lot of times. He's a heck of a playmaker but I like that he's using his shot a little more now.

"You can see how dynamic he can be and he breaks down the defense even more when he's shooting. Sometimes your teammates find those rebounds, too. I think for most part, that's the big different in his game, just shooting the puck a little bit more and starting to be a little bit more selfish."

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