BUFFALO — With the media gathered and the hockey world focused on his first Battle of Alberta on Hockey Night in Canada back in October, Connor McDavid stole the show with two goals and an assist. He was the best player on the ice that night, but we had no reason to see a trend developing.
Then he returned from missing 37 games with a broken collarbone, and the country once again tuned in from coast to coast. McDavid had two assists that night, plus a highlight-reel goal we would watch for the next week.
Then the Toronto Maple Leafs came to Edmonton, his first meeting with the team whose blue-and-white jammies he wore as a tyke. That’ll be five points, thank you very much.
And so we arrived in Buffalo Tuesday, a playoff-type media contingent and a full house that had come to see just two things: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
You’ll never guess what happened.
McDavid scored on his first and last shifts of the game, beating Eichel’s Sabres 2-1 in overtime. They had come to see the initial NHL meeting between the first and second overall picks from the 2015 draft — the Canadian versus the American — and McDavid did what he tends to do at moments like these.
He walked away with the girl, and left Eichel holding the heel of his beer.
“To be honest, it’s not a big deal,” McDavid said after the game. “I know I’m happy to get out of Buffalo and move on to the next game (in Philadephia).”
As nonchalant as McDavid is after games like these, Eichel was just that sour. And why not? No one likes a happy loser, and I’d buy a ticket to their next meeting. Eichel hasn’t had this happen to him very often.
“We didn’t play well at all. It started with the way we came out,” said Eichel, who was caught on camera sitting on the bench for McDavid’s opener at the 22-second mark of the game, then caught up ice on the OT winner after his own failed chance.
It truly was great hockey theatre: Eichel had a great chance to win it, the puck finds McDavid’s stick instead, and he hauls it end-to-end for an unassisted five-hole winner.
Pretty cool, eh Jack?
“There were eight guys on the ice though,” Eichel scowled. “Team game.”
In Edmonton’s dressing room resides a bunch of former No. 1 picks, and high pedigree scorers who have grown up scoring in the big moment. None of them have seen anything like this kid though — even Jordan Eberle, he of the Team Canada theatrics at the 2009 World Juniors.
“Good players are just able to rise to the occasion. Scoring on the first shift, then ending it on the last is a storybook ending,” Eberle marveled. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself to fill your (media’s) needs. Lots of attention coming into this game. To change the game like he did, it’s pretty impressive.”
It began with a bolt. A Zach Bogosian giveaway to Eberle, a quick pass to an opportunistic McDavid, and as Buffalo Sabres goalie Robin Lehner sprawled for a poke check it was if McDavid knew it was coming.
He drew the puck to his backhand and deposited the puck into an empty net as easily as a guy sweeping his sidewalk after a skiff of snow. We were 22 seconds into an anticipated maiden NHL voyage between McDavid and Eichel, and one had scored before the other had even hit the ice for his first shift.
However, this quickly went from No. 1 versus No. 2, to No. 26 wersus No. 29th — the place the Sabres and Oilers held in the NHL standings at puck drop. It was no classic on the macro level, though the micro matchup won’t soon be forgotten.
McDavid played 19:42 in regulation time with four shots and a goal, while Eichel played a pointless 20 minutes even with five shots. Both were even after 60 minutes until the ebb and flow of two OT rushes left McDavid at plus-1, and Eichel one under par.
Eichel finished off a heroic penalty kill in OT, then took the puck 150 feet, driving the Edmonton net. He pulled up and tried a spin-around backhand that slid wide.
“I should have just kept going on my forehand and tried to take it to the net,” he lamented. “Tough bounce, break ‘em out, and the puck’s in the back of our net.”
McDavid grabbed the biscuit at his own circle, took it north and stuffed a close-in backhand between the pads of goalie Lehner. Book-end goals for the star of this show. “I didn’t really see too much,” he downplayed. “I was on the backhand, had a lot of speed. Just thought I’d try to get one on net.”
They’ll meet again, these two, but there will never be another first time. It was, to be sure, a highly memorable game within a pretty forgettable matchup.
“The two best players on the ice were 97 and 15,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. “That’s a real positive for Buffalo and their future, along with ours, and the league.”