Before that wild Flyers victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night, before a 6-5 fireworks display that had everything short of a J.J. Daigneault game-winning goal, Jake Voracek was talking about the Olympics, of all things. People are wondering whether NHL players will participate in the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, and Voracek was incredulous at the idea that they wouldn't. Of course, the best players in the world would want to play for their countries, he said. You don't think Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid want to win Canada another gold medal?
The first name he mentioned was obvious. The second, less so. Was McDavid, just 19 and in his second season with the Oilers but already the league's leading scorer, on Voracek's mind just because of Thursday's game? Or did he really believe that the kid and Sid the Kid were equals?
"I've still got to go with Crosby, but McDavid is what, 10 years younger?" said Voracek, who had a goal and three assists in the win. "You look at the stats. He's already got, what, 36 points? He's got that whole package - speed, skill, can pass. Crosby is the best there is, but he's next right now."
If you want an explanation for why Thursday's game felt as close to a throwback to those 1980s Flyers-Oilers shootouts in the Stanley Cup Finals as a regular-season game can get, McDavid is as good as any. The Flyers had won six straight games ahead of Thursday - and now have won seven - and that streak gave the Wells Fargo Center some juice. But the presence of McDavid, of The Next Big Thing in the NHL, and an Edmonton team that can skate and score with anyone added a healthy dash of drama, too. Crosby might be the most hated athlete in Philadelphia and has been for a while, and because the Oilers play here just once a season, McDavid will never inspire the same enmity. Nevertheless, his nasty history with Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning, his goal and assist Thursday night, and the biggest benefit he received all night - a referee's swallowed whistle after McDavid dragged down Ivan Provorov on a partial breakaway - combined to make his visit next season a must-see event.
"They're at the top of their division, and we knew what we were going to deal with," Voracek said. "He's so quick, so fast. He showed it tonight. I think it's only good for hockey that players like that come around and dominate like that."
"He's explosive," said Claude Giroux, who scored two goals and had an assist. "He's fun to watch, makes plays out there a lot of players can't make."
Last season, you could watch McDavid over just 45 games, thanks to a controversial play in a Nov. 3 game against the Flyers. He had tried to go wide and cut toward the net against Manning, and depending on which team you prefer, either McDavid lost an edge and went tumbling into the boards, or Manning made a cheap play in pushing a defenseless superstar and, well, if he crashed to the ice, such things happen. McDavid broke his collarbone, and the incident was clearly on his mind Thursday. The two were involved in a first-period melee. And when he whipped a shot from near the right-wing boards past Steve Mason for a power-play goal in the second period, McDavid jawed at Manning, using language appropriate only for a Scorsese film, later accusing Manning of purposely trying to injure him a year ago.
"He wanted to make some comments today about what went on last year, and I thought it was one of the classless things I've ever seen on the ice," McDavid said. "He said some things, and our guys responded accordingly. We can put the whole 'He did it on purpose' thing to rest, because what he said out there confirmed that. It shows what kind of guy he is, how he doesn't step up and fight some of our guys."
Later, Manning told reporters that McDavid kept talking throughout the game, even directing his oral fire at the Flyers' bench, and what could have been a mellow night of hockey between two unfamiliar opponents instead was elevated into a fevered test of the teams' speed, skill, and discipline. Truth be told, this was the sort of game that the Flyers, for too long, would have lost. They twice rallied from two-goal deficits against a roadrunner-style club. Compared to the rosters they've had in recent years, loaded with marginal NHL players among their third and fourth lines and their defensive pairings, it's a testament to the depth that they have now - and will have as their young core matures - that they not only didn't get blown out, but that they completed their comeback with Michael Raffl's goal with 1:29 to go.
"It was an intense game, a lot of emotion, felt like a little playoff game," Giroux said. "That was funnest game we've played all year."
What made it all the more enjoyable was the creation of a new villain for his town's hockey fans. Connor McDavid flashed his greatness and flapped his gums and made a few new enemies here. He's not Sidney Crosby yet, but that's OK. He's close enough. You want fun? Wait until the Oilers come back next season.