NHL's points race heating up in long-awaited McDavid-MacKinnon matchup

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It’s hard not to look at Rogers Place as the OK Corral of a showdown Saturday between a couple of gunslingers in the running for the NHL’s scoring title.

Coming into their first meeting of the season, there was the clear and present leader in Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, whose 115 points came off of 42 goals and 73 assists over the first 67 games of the schedule.

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And then there was Connor McDavid, whose 21 goals and league-leading 81 assists occurred in the previous 62 games played. After missing two early on due to injury, he still has three games in hand to expand on his 106 points.

And the nine-point gap coming into Wednesday’s game gets a lot narrower after factoring in the five more points projected onto McDavid over the three games in hand at his current 1.7-points-per-game clip.

And that’s impressive on its own, considering McDavid was all the way back in 113th place in league scoring back when the Oilers had gotten off to their worst start to a season in franchise history, at 2-9-1.

Not that the Oilers captain has ever put much focus on individual achievements such as the scoring race. Not publicly, at least.

And for as much as the rest of the Oilers locker-room is pulling for McDavid to push for a plethora of points down the stretch, it’s more for the benefit of the standings than the individual statistics.

“Of course, we know what Nate’s done this year and in years past,” said McDavid’s linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “They’re two of the best players in the league and their points show that, as well.

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“I know that we don’t think or worry about it too much, and I don’t think Connor does, either. Especially at this point. The focus is on winning hockey games.”

The same goes for the other side, too.

“I look at it as just two teams playing each other,” said MacKinnon, drafted first overall in 2013, two years before McDavid went in the same spot. “Yeah, especially at the deadline it’s really exciting here. We’re trying to win a Cup, just like them.”

While he’s taking aim at his first Art Ross trophy — which McDavid etched his name on five of the past seven seasons — MacKinnon has had the pleasure of hoisting the NHL’s Holy Grail, winning the Stanley Cup in 2022. McDavid has not.

But before any playoff dates get set, these two teams will face each other two more times over the final month of the schedule, including the regular-season finale April 18. And that means more head-to-head meetings between two of the best.

“It’s really hard. Really, really hard,” MacKinnon said of facing McDavid on the ice. “He’s an amazing skater, obviously I’m saying things you guys know. Such a great playmaker, he’ll either beat you wide or create space for his teammates. It’s really hard to defend.

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“You can’t really, you just have to hope to try to limit it as best you can. He’s going to get chances.”

As does MacKinnon at the other end of the ice.

“They have a similar speed to the game,” said MacKinnon’s linemate, Mikko Rantanen. “Maybe Nate’s more powerful, a little bit more bulkier guy, but obviously McDavid is very slippery, hard to defend with his speed and his hands.

“They’re really similar, just built a little bit different, I feel like. But a lot of similarities, maybe Nate has a heavier shot but McDavid scored 60 (goals) last year. It’s not easy to do, so he has a quick shot which is hard for goalies.”

Perhaps it’s the same-but-different quality that makes it such an intriguing matchup for fans of the game.

“In the hockey world, I remember growing up watching (Sidney) Crosby-(Alex) Ovechkin every time they played,” Rankonen said. “And for sure there’s a little rivalry, kind of, with us and Edmonton. We don’t play in the same division, but we played in the playoffs, so we know each other well.

“And obviously have a lot of good players on the ice, so I would think fans for sure like to watch these kind of games.”

Not to mention the final leg of the NHL scoring race with the finish line fast approaching.

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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