EDMONTON — Connor McDavid picked up where he left off, scoring two goals to pace the Edmonton Oilers to a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames in NHL exhibition play Tuesday.
Kailer Yamamoto and Patrick Russell also scored for the Oilers while Elias Lindholm replied for Calgary in a game played before thousands of empty seats at Rogers Place.
The arena has been locked down to prevent any spread of COVID-19 as Edmonton hosts the Western Conference play-in/play-off series to finish the 2019-20 season.
“I liked our first period, didn’t like our second and I thought we responded well in the third,” said McDavid post-game.
“We kind of had all the highs and lows of one game. Those are the types of swings you’re going to see in the playoffs.”
Oiler centre Leon Draisaitl, the NHL’s regular season scoring leader, also had a strong game.
The game was only a minute old when Draisaitl chased down a dump-in to Calgary’s end to spark an attack that ended with Yamamoto firing a rebound over goalie Cam Talbot’s glove to make it 1-0.
The Oilers’ power play, the league’s best at 29.5 per cent in the regular season, made it 2-0 at the 7:44 mark. Draisaitl threaded a cross-ice pass through heavy traffic in the slot to McDavid on the doorstep who then flicked the puck over a sprawling Talbot.
Calgary battled back in the second period, taking the game to Edmonton on the forecheck and outshooting them 16-7. Lindholm, on the power play, jumped on a loose puck at the crease and scored high on Oiler goalie Mike Smith to cut the lead to 2-1 with less than four seconds to play in the period.
The Oilers put the game away late in the third, with Russell and McDavid scoring 33 seconds apart. McDavid was a short side wrist shot from close in on Calgary’s David Rittich.
Edmonton is hosting the 12 Western Conference teams as one of two NHL hub cities. Toronto is hosting the Eastern side.
The COVID clampdown made for a surreal atmosphere inside Rogers Place.
The downtown arena was closed to fans. The lower bowl stands were tarped over. Massive video screens hung down from the rafters. Calgary, dressed in red, was the designated home team, welcomed to the ice by the announcer revving up the phantom faithful with a drawn out: “Yourrrrr Calgarrrry Flaaaaames!”
At times it sounded like a late night beer league game at the local arena, albeit at a slightly faster pace: players could be heard calling for pucks, swearing blue streaks at opponents, and sometimes derisively asking the referee what game he was watching. The slap of the sticks and the boom of the puck echoed off the plastic and mesh seats.
Media members, masked up and temperature checked, were spaced at distances high up in the rink, just below the press box.
McDavid said they adapted to playing in a big empty.
“You have two teams that don’t like each other very much, so it didn’t feel too different that way,” he said. “We got more and more used to it as the game went on.”
While it was a tune up game, there were flashes of the bad blood between these two Alberta rivals, with multiple post-whistle scrums along the glass and in the goal creases.
In the first period, Oiler forward Zack Kassian levelled Calgary defenceman Erik Gustafsson, knocking his helmet off, while Flame forward Matthew Tkachuk pushed himself right into Mikko Koskinen’s crease, prompting the goalie to whack him with his stick.
Tkachuk, famous for his pest tactics, also delivered a hit on former Flame James Neal, leading to Neal lumberjack-whacking him on the back with his stick and drawing a penalty.
Talbot played the first half of the game for Calgary making 19 saves on 21 shots, many of the difficult variety. Rittich came on halfway through the second.
Koskinen saved 17 of 17 between the pipes in the first half of the game for Edmonton. Smith took over the second half.
Calgary outshot Edmonton 37-30 but the dangerous chances favoured the Oilers.
Both teams have goaltending decisions to make. For Edmonton, Koskinen (18-13-3, .917 save percentage) and Smith (19-12-6, .902 percentage) have been a serviceable platoon tandem.
In Calgary, Talbot has put up numbers to push Rittich for the top job, with a .919 save percentage to .902 for Rittich.
Draisaitl and McDavid have become the league’s deadliest one-two punch and are being counted on to take the Oilers on a deep playoff run.
Draisaitl had a massive breakthrough season, scoring 43 goals and collecting 110 points when play was suspended March 12 due to the COVID pandemic.
McDavid was second in the league at 34 goals and 97 points.
The Oilers will play the Chicago Blackhawks in a best of five play-in series starting Saturday afternoon. The Flames play the Winnipeg Jets.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.