A mind-boggling comeback has set up NHL’s biggest game in 82 years


Connor McDavid could win the Stanley Cup at the arena where he first entered the NHL. Photograph: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/.bkbyQ_ncxuKN5_UvJ669A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_guardian_765/513940b5d9265688ddc4eacc47575113″ data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/.bkbyQ_ncxuKN5_UvJ669A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_guardian_765/513940b5d9265688ddc4eacc47575113″>

Connor McDavid could win the Stanley Cup at the arena where he first entered the NHL. Photograph: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

No NHL team has come back from 3-0 down to win a Stanley Cup Final since the Toronto Maple Leafs did it against the Detroit Red Wings in April 1942. Now, 82 years later, the Edmonton Oilers may change that history. On Monday night on the edge of the Everglades, the Oilers will face off against the Florida Panthers in Game 7 and try to win their fourth straight to take the Cup and become the first Canadian NHL champions since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. If it goes the Oilers’ way, the game will most likely be crowned one of the NHL’s all-time best – or at least one of the most memorable in league history. And the Oilers captain, a generational talent, will have come back to where his career with the team began.

26 June 2015 was a Friday and there was a buzz in the BT&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, home (still, under a different name) of the Panthers. It was NHL draft night, and the assumed No 1 pick was an 18-year-old from north of Toronto who’d lit up the Ontario Hockey League for three years and led Canada to a World Junior Championship the previous winter. Connor McDavid had been playing on another level his entire life, allowed to skate at age six with the nine-year olds and granted “exceptional status” to enter the OHL at age 15, a year early, where he became the most decorated player in the league’s history.

Related: A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in more than 30 years. Does it matter?

The Oilers were, on the other hand, coming off another dismal season. They’d finished second-last in the Western Conference. By 2015, the Oilers had become something of a perennial joke at the draft. The team picked first overall in 2010, 2011, and 2012, seventh overall in 2013, then third overall again in 2013 – each one a reflection of Edmonton’s poor performance. No matter how many top draft picks the Oilers added to the roster, they found themselves back at or near the bottom of the league over and over again. But then, here was McDavid. Could he finally be the answer?

“I think my expectations exceed any of those that anyone else puts on me,” McDavid told the Globe and Mail after the Oilers selected him first overall. “I just have to make sure I am playing my game. If I meet my expectations, the chances are I will meet everybody else’s as well.”

Those expectations were very high. Dubbed the Oilers’ saviour, he got the nickname “McJesus” – one that has stuck thanks to his god-like on-ice moves and highlight reel goals. But a saviour carries the weight of a people, and McDavid has shouldered Oilers history ever since draft day. The history of the team’s 1980s Cup wins, the loss in 2006, and those many bad years that followed. Not to mention the yoke of a guy named Wayne Gretzky.

McDavid walked into what was, on paper, a talented dressing room. Thanks to the previous years’ top selection spots, the Oilers boasted guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, and the man they’d chosen the year prior, Leon Draisaitl. But the Oilers were “a mismanaged collection of young stars who can’t burn hotter than the dumpster fire in which they’re consumed,” one NHL columnist sneered a few months before McDavid was drafted. Things didn’t click immediately. The Oilers only made the playoffs once over the next four seasons, finishing near the bottom of the division every other year. They were bumped from the postseason in the qualifying round in 2020, and the following year exited in round one. A Western Conference Final loss followed in 2021-22, and they were bumped in the second round last season. Still, in that time, McDavid solidified his status as one of the greats. His seven consecutive 100-point seasons before the age of 28, for instance, put him in conversation with not only Gretzky but Mario Lemieux, too. But with his success, expectations turned into questions. As good as McDavid was, could he ever win a Cup in Edmonton? Could he ever match Gretzky’s greatness? And what was missing from this talented team? Was it goaltending? Defence? Were they cursed from above? Or was it the city itself, unable to attract the kinds of players the team needed for a championship?

A few months before McDavid was drafted, Edmonton was selected in an NHL player poll as the least desirable city to call home. Edmonton, the NHL’s most northern outpost has, since the discovery of oil nearby in the 1940s, been a blue collar city riding a boom-bust commodity price cycle. It prides itself on its gruff, frontier-like attitude. But it’s not always the easiest place to be. When McDavid came to town, Edmonton’s unemployment rate was 5.4%; it hit 15.6% during the pandemic, and is now just under 7%. The city is fighting a historic homelessness crisis and a street drug epidemic. But, like its team, Edmonton may be down, but it’s not out. And the Oilers are doing their part – the team’s first three rounds generated an estimated CAD$179m in economic activity for the city.

The Oilers played their last home game of the 2023-24 season on Friday in front of a never-ending crowd roar – the sound of a city that may have needed a little hope. Monday night, they’ll be back in Florida as they stare down history – that of their team, that of the ’42 Leafs, and that of a nation desperate for the Cup to return to its home and native land for the first time in over 30 years. All these expectations could prove to be too much for the Oilers, although there is plenty of pressure on the Panthers to avoid a shattering capitulation after a first Stanley Cup title seemed all but theirs 10 days ago. It may be that the only feat of Gretzky’s that McDavid surpasses this year is the Great One’s postseason point total, something that itself seemed impossible. Then again, what’s one more miracle? The impossible is what McDavid does.