Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has plenty to prove in the Stanley Cup playoffs

The last time Connor McDavid competed in the postseason, he had something to prove.

Entering the 2015 Ontario Hockey League playoffs, the only thing standing between McDavid and becoming the first pick in that summer's NHL draft was an impressive playoff performance. McDavid didn't disappoint, leading the Erie Otters to an upset of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the top-ranked team in Canadian junior hockey, in the conference finals -- and cementing his place as the best player not in the NHL.

"I've never seen a player dominate as much as he did," McDavid's coach in Erie, Kris Knoblauch, said of McDavid, who set an Otters record for most points in a playoff series, with 19. "Those six games stick out for me. He was absolutely dominant."

Despite losing in the OHL finals in five games to the Oshawa Generals, McDavid led the postseason in goals, assists and points while establishing himself as a player who refused to wilt in the glaring playoff spotlight.

Two years later, if McDavid -- now 20 and the superstar captain of the Edmonton Oilers -- has his way, his first appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs could be a coronation.

These days, McDavid hasn't been thinking about that OHL run too often. It really only came up when he teased Oilers teammate Darnell Nurse -- who, as a defenseman on that top-ranked Greyhounds team, saw plenty of McDavid in that series.

"We talk about that a fair amount. I always remind Darnell of that series, all in joking and fun," McDavid said. "The OHL compared to the NHL playoffs, I don't think they really compare. You can't really rely on that experience."

The postseason provides a clean slate for everyone, even players who are riding a season-ending 14-game point streak like McDavid was. All his previous exploits will be rendered meaningless, including his remarkable 2016-17 regular season, during which he earned the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer, with 100 points, and became the third-youngest scoring champ in league history, behind Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky.

None of that matters in Edmonton's first-round series against the San Jose Sharks, which continues Friday in Edmonton, the Oilers down 1-0. McDavid, who had an assist in the Game 1 OT loss, has to prove himself all over again in the playoffs.

"He'll be gung ho," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "He'll have his team ready."

As the Sharks head coach from 2008 to 2015 and an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings team that hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2008, McLellan has seen his share of clutch playoff performances. McLellan already considers McDavid on par with some of the stars he has previously coached.

"It's like dealing with Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Henrik Zetterberg, those type of guys," McLellan said of McDavid. "He's 20, but you don't have a sense of immaturity when you're speaking with him or dealing with him."

McDavid's young NHL career hasn't been without its challenges. He broke his clavicle just weeks into his rookie season and missed nearly three months -- but still finished with 48 points in 45 games.

When he was named captain of the Oilers in October, making him -- at 19 years, 266 days -- the youngest player in NHL history to don the C, some thought it was too much too soon for the phenom.

But veteran goaltender Cam Talbot, who served as Henrik Lundqvist's backup when the New York Rangers advanced to the 2014 Stanley Cup finals, said the team is fully behind its young commander.

"A lot of people questioned that decision at the beginning of the year, thinking maybe he was too young to take the 'C,'" Talbot said. "But he is our unquestioned leader. Where he goes, we go."

McDavid was already a decorated player internationally, with gold medals in under-18, under-20 and senior world championships -- and had been a captain at every level of competition -- including when McLellan chose him to captain Team North America, the under-23 squad of Canadians and Americans that entertained at the World Cup of Hockey in September.

Perhaps no one can better attest to his attributes as a leader than Nurse. As McDavid's roommate, he occasionally serves as an opponent when the pair faces off in a spirited game of FIFA on Xbox. Even in video-game soccer, McDavid seems to have the upper hand. That's not a coincidence.

"He comes on the ice every night and makes a difference for us. Not only on the ice, but off the ice, he sets a great example," Nurse said. "We have a lot of vocal guys in the room. When he needs to talk, he talks. But the biggest thing for him is that he leads by example every single day.

"When you're a player and you're on someone's team who leads by example every day, any time they say something, you're going to listen because you always know they're doing the right thing," Nurse continued. "That definitely is something that he has shown here this year."

McDavid has embraced the demands of the captaincy and thrived in the spotlight this season, especially down the stretch.

In a heated game on April 1 against the Pacific Division-rival Anaheim Ducks -- the second game after Edmonton clinched its first postseason berth in 11 years -- McDavid demonstrated that he was looking to do far more than just punch a playoff ticket. He opened the scoring in the first period before setting up Milan Lucic's tying score with 1:58 remaining in regulation. Then, 86 seconds into overtime, McDavid perfectly executed a 2-on-1 break to set up Leon Draisaitl's winner. The all-world performance sealed Edmonton's fifth consecutive win, tying its best run of the season and catapulting the Oilers into a first-place tie atop the division.

The Oilers would eventually fall out of that first-place tie with Anaheim, but McDavid made a statement with the playoffs just days away.

"I've never played in the [NHL] playoffs, I don't know what it's like, but I envision it being like that [Anaheim game]," McDavid said before Game 1. "Nothing really changes. You want to be ramping up toward the playoffs. You want to be peaking as you're heading in."

The only player on Edmonton's roster to win the Stanley Cup has some simple advice for his inexperienced teammates, with a special nod toward his captain.

"Enjoy it. It's going to be hard. It's going to be a struggle, but you've got to embrace it," said Lucic, who won hockey's grandest prize with the Boston Bruins in 2011. "Bring your game and play your best when it matters the most. That's where guys are remembered the most. Just enjoy the moment."

McDavid will no doubt, as he has all season, lean on veterans such as Lucic as he pursues the next milestone in his meteoric rise to hockey superstardom.

"At the end of the day, it is hockey. It's the same game, the rules don't change," McDavid said. "It's the same hockey game I've been playing since I was 2 years old. I think you can kind of rely on that."