TORONTO — Connor McDavid experienced another sinking feeling — if only for a brief moment.
The superstar captain of the Edmonton Oilers had just been the victim of a friendly fire collision with teammate Derek Ryan late in Thursday's victory over the Boston Bruins.
McDavid immediately grabbed at his left leg after crumpling to the ice as the franchise and fanbase held its collective breath, but got to the bench on his own before helping close out a gutsy, 3-2 statement win over a club on a record-setting pace.
"We were all like, 'Oh my gosh, what is happening?'" Oilers winger Kailer Yamamoto said of the reaction after the team's talisman went down. "We all gasped for a little bit, but thank goodness he came back out and was fine.
"We were a little bit nervous."
Apart from raising his own bar to new and astonishing heights, McDavid also had his annual homecoming just around the corner with Edmonton set to visit the Toronto Maple Leafs under Saturday night's bright lights.
Last year's visit, which was supposed to be Edmonton's first with fans inside Scotiabank Arena since before the pandemic, turned out to be a dud.
McDavid tested positive for COVID-19 and didn't play, Leafs star Auston Matthews was out injured, and pandemic-related provincial health restrictions made for empty stands.
With McDavid and Matthews healthy — plus a buzzing rink packed to the rafters — this time around should have a much different feel.
"Always special," McDavid, who grew up in nearby Newmarket, Ont., said following Friday's practice of playing in the building where he cheered on Toronto as a kid. "It's Saturday night. They always have us playing on a Monday or Wednesday or something like that.
"It's fun it's on a Saturday."
McDavid has filled the net this season no matter the day of the week.
The 26-year-old has already set career-highs for goals (54) and points (124) in just 65 appearances. He's registered eight three-point games — McDavid had one of those in Edmonton's 5-2 home victory over Toronto on March 1— nine four-point contests and has put up five points once.
"Taken his own game to the next level at being the best in the world," Edmonton forward Zach Hyman said. "Keeps getting better."
There have also been times, including Thursday, when McDavid has been kept in check and off the scoresheet. The Bruins also largely did the same with Leon Draisaitl.
But the Oilers, who have leaned heavily on their stars in past key moments, still found a way thanks to big goals from Ryan McLeod, Evan Bouchard and Darnell Nurse in a hostile Boston environment.
"That's how you win when it matters most," McDavid said. "It takes everybody."
Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft, who guided the Oilers to last spring's Western Conference final as a rookie mid-season replacement, said Thursday had the feel of a playoff game.
"A lot of times what happens is the best players on both teams saw each other off," he said. "We've had really good depth contributions all year long.
"When we're seeing what we're seeing out of McDavid and Draisaitl, sometimes other people get lost in the shuffle."
Woodcroft added the entire process of the 82-game schedule, apart from the primary task of securing another post-season berth, is to get ready for the playoff opener.
"We're working towards being prepared for Game No. 83," he said. "Last year's run whet the appetite of a lot of people that haven't been that far before, and left people with a sense of hunger to continue to get better, to continue to grow. I thought in that third-round playoff series, we learned that the margins are razor-thin.
"We've spent all year preparing ourselves to make sure that we're ready."
So, where's McDavid's hunger level?
"Insatiable," Woodcroft replied with a wink.
McDavid and a number of his teammates with local ties aren't the only ones getting a chance to perform in front of family and friends Saturday.
Woodcroft will stand behind the bench at Scotiabank Arena as an NHL head coach for the first time since taking over from Dave Tippett last February.
"Grew up in a proud hockey family here in Toronto," said the 46-year-old. "I think it's a testament to sticking to something. It took 17 years to get the opportunity. I'm thankful and I feel humbled and fortunate that I was asked to be the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
"It's not a responsibility I take lightly."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press