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NHL's Connor McDavid shines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hockey's history books are filled with the same name again and again - Wayne Gretzky. His records have long been thought to be out of reach until now. Tonight, in game six of the Stanley Cup final, all eyes will be on one player making a run at one of Gretzky's most impressive records. NPR's Becky Sullivan reports.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm going to start by telling you about this one moment from Game Five on Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Misty (ph) moves through a double team, and Perry scores. What a play by McDavid.

SULLIVAN: The Edmonton Oilers are spread out across the ice. There are five players the Florida Panthers could be defending, but all of them collapse on just one guy - Connor McDavid.

STEVE LEVY: Four Florida Panther defenders are all surrounding McDavid. McDavid is the only Oiler. McDavid's got the puck.

SULLIVAN: This is ESPN's Steve Levy.

LEVY: And McDavid still, obviously, somehow was able to get through all four of those Florida Panthers and then beat the goalie and set up his buddy for a tapping.

SULLIVAN: McDavid sliced through the defenders like they were just cones on an obstacle course, flicked the puck to his teammate for the goal, leaving everyone - the announcers, the fans, the Florida Panthers - stunned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: For the win, the Oilers - a brilliant piece of work, McDavid to Perry.

SULLIVAN: After the game, the teammate who scored the goal, Corey Perry, told reporters it was just another Tuesday for McDavid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COREY PERRY: He puts his team on his back. When we're against the wall, he puts us on his back. And, you know, you see why he is the best player.

SULLIVAN: Not just the best player on the Oilers, the best player in a generation, the kind of skater so electric that when he touches the puck, fans of his opponent get out of their seats to witness what might happen, Levy says.

LEVY: You don't even have to know it's him. You don't have to know it's his uniform number. He jumps off the television screen, off the ice. He just looks so different than everyone else.

SULLIVAN: People have been expecting great things from Connor McDavid for a long time. He's been a star ever since Edmonton chose him with a top draft pick in 2015, but the Oilers just weren't very good for a lot of those years. So McDavid didn't have a realistic chance at the Stanley Cup until now, and he's making the most of it, says Sean McIndoe, a hockey writer for The Athletic.

SEAN MCINDOE: What we're seeing from Connor McDavid in this year's playoffs is historically one of the greatest performances ever by an offensive player.

SULLIVAN: McIndoe says Gretzky's records were set in the '80s and '90s, when there was a lot more scoring, part of the reason why those records have stood for so long.

MCINDOE: Yet here we are in 2024, in an era where it's much harder to score in the NHL. The teams are so much better, and yet Connor McDavid is chasing a record that's held by Wayne Gretzky.

SULLIVAN: That record is points in a single playoffs run, points meaning both goals and assists. McDavid currently has 42. Gretzky's record is 47. McDavid has tonight's Game 6 to chase it and, if the Oilers win again, a deciding Game 7. There's one other thing at stake, McIndoe says. While McDavid is hockey's biggest star, he's not all that well-known outside of the sport, and his performance is an opportunity both for him and hockey.

MCINDOE: The level of performance that he's at - you don't have to follow hockey. You don't have to understand or even like hockey to be able to appreciate true greatness.

SULLIVAN: He says the phenomenon around the basketball player Caitlin Clark proves American audiences can, in fact, show up for a sport they traditionally haven't cared so much about. Maybe hockey could be next. Becky Sullivan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL WAYNE SONG, "SHOOTER FT. ROBIN THICKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.