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Connor McDavid's singular brilliance tilts Battle of Alberta toward Oilers

Oilers centre Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal with teammates against the Flames. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)
Oilers centre Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal with teammates against the Flames. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Jacob Markstrom must have felt sick to his stomach.

Throughout the opening 51 minutes of Saturday’s contest against the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames had largely neutralized Connor McDavid — a nearly impossible task. McDavid had yet to register a shot, while the Flames were controlling the pace and play of a frantic second installment of the Battle of Alberta with a home crowd that could pulsate through home speakers across the nation.

In one fell swoop, the Flames’ superior roster construction and shot-creation advantages were rendered null. During a seemingly routine play, Markstrom went behind his net to field a dump-in from Oilers defenceman Cody Ceci and fired it up the boards, anticipating Flames forward Kevin Rooney to pick up the puck and start the zone exit.

One problem: There was no Flames player in sight. As Rooney sagged into zone coverage without the puck, McDavid scooped it up and fired it past a startled Markstrom to tie the game at two apiece.

This is merely one play, of course, but it’s an accurate portrait of the Battle of Alberta: the Flames have a well-rounded team with superior depth and goaltending, but they are prone to erraticism, which allows the Oilers back into the battle. And when you have the singularly brilliant McDavid, there is no gap that is considered insurmountable.

Whether you view it as a blunder by Markstrom, a natural goal-scorer’s goal by McDavid, or some combination of both elements, it allowed the Oilers back into the fight. As if he didn’t already put his stamp on the game, McDavid later pulled off a magical assist, placing it off Zach Hyman’s skate for the go-ahead goal — Hyman’s second marker of the evening. You can call it luck or serendipitous fortune if you’d like, but you know what they say about being lucky and good.

With the go-ahead assist, McDavid sits atop the NHL’s scoring race with an even nine goals and nine assists, registering his league-leading fourth three-point game of the infant season thus far. He is a singular player during an era where the league has had an influx of young stars emerge onto the scene. And through McDavid, you can assess how the current Battle of Alberta has manifested itself once again as perhaps the marquee rivalry in the NHL.

Calgary spent its offseason reshaping its potent roster as Johnny Gaudreau signed with Columbus in free agency, Matthew Tkachuk was traded for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, while the team signed Nazem Kadri to a seven-year deal — a contract that essentially operates as a lifetime pact.

It’s only been seven games but the aggressive offseason has seemingly paid off for the Flames. Kadri has been a perfect fit, while Weegar is a genuine star in his own right. If you examine the statistical profile of the new-look Flames, they’re capable of shooting the lights out one night, while locking into a conservative scheme on another if they see fit. Roster and stylistic flexibility are luxurious qualities for Cup-contending teams.

And yet, McDavid brought all that progress to a screeching halt through the course of two moves.

Calgary out-chanced Edmonton 65-36 at 5-on-5, while holding a 62.8 percent share of the expected goals at even strength, per Natural Stat Trick. You can toss the charts out the window, too. The Flames looked the part of a Western Conference juggernaut, with all four lines capable of generating meaningful offence. They are the more sustainable team. They have fewer flaws than the vast majority of contenders. But they don’t have Connor McDavid, and so far, that’s the difference.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shoutout to Stuart Skinner, Edmonton’s hometown hero between the pipes. It was Jack Campbell who was expected to give the Oilers new life, but the former Maple Leafs goaltender has struggled badly to start the year, giving way to the upstart Skinner. Skinner outplayed Markstrom, his Vezina-nominated counterpart, making 40 saves, keeping the Oilers in the game before McDavid sprung alive.

“He played great then. I thought he played great tonight,” McDavid said postgame about Skinner via The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman. “He gave us a chance. They’re a team that shoots a lot of pucks from bad angles and gets lots of traffic to the net. He held his own and played great.”

Markstrom is the far superior goalie — unless, of course, Skinner’s hot streak is improbably the true picture of what he’s capable of — but the Oilers are his personal house of horrors, and he desperately needs to shake off his poor play from last year’s second-round series.

It’s probably unsustainable to win this way and McDavid almost assuredly needs more help during the postseason. And perhaps the Oilers will find it incumbent upon themselves to be aggressive at the trade deadline, but those are tomorrow’s problems.

You can do everything the right way, you can shoot the lights out, you can rebuild your roster and remain a juggernaut, and if you don’t have Connor McDavid, the battle will remain eternally unsolved.

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