brown feature_0619_tonight

EDMONTON -- Connor McDavid was on a recruiting mission.

It was a sweltering Toronto day last summer, and the Edmonton Oilers captain was meeting Connor Brown, his former teammate with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League, at Ristorante Sotto Sotto, a swank Italian eatery in the city’s upscale Yorkville neighborhood.

The goal: Convince the free agent forward to come out west and sign with the Oilers.

According to Brown, not much wooing was needed.

“I mean, what was there to say?” Brown said with a chuckle. “I had a chance to be on a team with the best player in the world, a team that had the type of talent to go to the Stanley Cup Final with all of Canada watching. It’s not like I had to be talked into it.

“He laid out his vision in front of me. And now it’s come to pass.”

Indeed, all that remains now is for the two Connors and their teammates to win the next two games of the 2024 Final, and their dream, their plan, their place in history, all of it will become reality. Do that, beginning with a victory in Game 6 at raucous Rogers Place on Friday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVAS), and they’ll join the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs as the only teams to have erased a 3-0 deficit in a Final en route to winning the Cup.

Though the final chapter still needs to be written, this is the way McDavid saw -- or at least hoped -- things would play out when he invited Brown out to dine with him almost a year ago. Brown eventually signed a one-year, $4 million contract with an Edmonton team that was pushed up against the NHL salary cap and needed to offer him a deal full of performance-related incentives.

“I think he’s a great fit for the group,” McDavid told at the time. “I think he fits in perfectly in the room, with the group, all that type of stuff.

“When all is said and done, I think it’s the perfect addition.”

He certainly lived up to McDavid’s expectations, at least in the past two games. In the process, he’s helped the Oilers whittle down a 3-0 lead in this best-of-7 series to 3-2.

In Game 4 on Saturday, he set up Mattias Janmark, who gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead 3:11 into the game with teammate Darnell Nurse in the penalty box serving a hooking minor. The Oilers would hold the lead for the remainder of the game on the way to an 8-1 victory.

In Game 5 on Tuesday, he beat Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with a nifty deke to give Edmonton a 1-0 advantage at 5:30 of the first period with Oilers defenseman Brett Kulak serving a high-sticking minor. Once again, Edmonton would not trail in the game and ended up with a 5-3 victory.

EDM@FLA SCF, Gm5: Brown goes to backhand for SHG to take lead in 1st period

Both goals came on the penalty kill, marking the first time in Final history that a team has opened the scoring with a short-handed goal in back-to-back games.

“It’s so nice to see him stick with it after going through so much adversity,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said of Brown on Wednesday.

“Right now there’s been a lot of headlines (about him) and rightly so, with how well he’s been playing.”

Maybe so. But his journey to get to this point with the Oilers has been anything but easy.

* * * *

Imagine not scoring for 720 days.

Welcome to Connor Brown’s world.

On March 24, 2022, the native of Etobicoke, Ontario, playing for the Ottawa Senators at the time, scored against the Winnipeg Jets.

He would not score again until March 13, 2024, against the Washington Capitals, this time as a member of the Oilers.

In the interim there were days of pain, of sweat-filled rehab, of questions about how effective of a player he could be again.

“It was tough,” he said. “You have to be mentally strong. You have to be committed.”

He was all that, difficult as it could be at times.

On July 13, 2022, the Senators traded him to the Capitals for a second-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. He’d scored an NHL career-high 21 goals in 56 games with Ottawa in 2020-21, and Washington figured the forward would be a solid offensive contributor.

Then, disaster.

On Oct. 17, 2022, in his fourth game with the Capitals, he tore an ACL after landing awkwardly following a legal check from Vancouver Canucks defenseman Noah Juulsen. He had surgery Nov. 1 and missed the rest of the 2022-23 season.

The Oilers knew it would take him time to get up to speed when they signed him. Sure enough, when the 2023-24 season started, there were plenty of signs of rust.

Brown is known for his tenacious forechecking, but it was evident he was a step behind and, more often than not, couldn’t get on top of opposing defensemen in time to force them into mistakes. Edmonton tried to get him going by experimenting with him on a line with McDavid, but he simply couldn’t score.

“I thought I would come along a bit quicker, but it did just in time,” he said. “I have a high sense and belief in myself that I can be a difference-maker.

“It is rewarding to go through such struggles mentally and physically and kind of get back to what I feel is my true self.”

When he finally scored his first goal with the Oilers in his 55th game for the team, he received a rousing ovation from the crowd at Rogers Place. Instead of criticizing him, the fans supported him. He finished the regular season with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 71 games, all the while feeling more, in his words, like “his true self.”

After being a healthy scratch for the Oilers in their five-game series win against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference First Round, he’s played 17 of Edmonton’s subsequent 18 postseason games and has been a key member of a penalty kill that is on a 43-for-44 run. In the process, he’s regained the giddyup in his gait, zipping around the ice and forcing turnovers like the one that resulted in his breakaway goal in Game 5.

Brown gives the Oilers coaching staff credit for being patient with him and the training staff for helping him reach the level he was striving for.

“Obviously I’m putting in the work, but they’re helping me every step of the way get my pop back,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t really have that jump. It was tough. And there were other things that can creep in when you’re favoring one side, right?

“So that’s what I’ve been dealing with a lot during the season, which takes away from your ability to be 100 percent.”

Now, the 30-year-old peaking at the right time. And it’s noticeable to his teammates.

Forward Zach Hyman was Brown’s teammate with Toronto of the American Hockey League, then with the Toronto Maple Leafs. When Brown was leaning toward taking McDavid’s advice and joining the Oilers last summer, he touched base with Hyman to get his thoughts.

In the end, Hyman is glad he did.

“I was one of the guys who really wanted him to come here,” Hyman said. “I know how effective he can be, how good he can be.

“He’s obviously coming off knee surgery and didn’t get off to the greatest start, and I think a lot of people lost faith in him. But I always knew how good he is. And now, I think everyone’s seeing it. Oilers fans are seeing it.

“He’s been one of our best players. And in all aspects of the game. Whether it’s been 5-on-5 or the PK, he’s been unbelievable.”

A glowing endorsement for a guy who went almost two years without scoring.

* * * *

When McDavid was selected by Erie with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 OHL draft, he was shown the ropes by Brown, who was Erie's captain during McDavid's first two seasons there. Brown had been selected by Erie in the 13th round (No. 251) of the 2010 OHL draft, which resulted in a huge chip on his shoulder due to a perceived lack of respect shown by the hockey world.

McDavid quickly grew to admire Brown, seeing a mentor on a mission who went from a minus-72 player in 2011-2012 to a plus-44 player with 128 points (45 goals, 83 assists) in 68 games two seasons later.

"He's just so smart," McDavid said. "He's a really, really smart player. And competitive. I think that was the main thing I remember.

"I was just a 15-year-old kid, and he was trying to develop his game. He'd just been drafted by the Leafs (sixth round, No. 156 in the 2012 NHL Draft) and was just so competitive every single night. We weren't a very good team, so there were a lot of long bus rides, but the next few years were great.”

Knoblauch took over as Erie coach midway through the 2012-13 season and, like McDavid, saw Brown grow as a player and a man.

“His play right now has been exceptional,” Knoblauch said. "He’s been contributing 5-on-5. The penalty kill has been tremendous. He’s helping our team in a lot of areas.”

All the while, Brown is embracing making an impact again.

“I feel great,” he said. “I’m skating as good as I ever have. The adversity has made me stronger.

“Hey, we’re back in this series now. We hold our fate in our own hands. We’re the ones who can write our own script.”

Just like he has with his own feel-good story.