Sabres’ Jack Eichel talks rivalry with Leafs, Auston Matthews

Morgan Rielly scored on the power play and the Toronto Maple Leafs added two empty net goals to beat the Buffalo Sabres.

Things are going to get very fun, very soon in the Battle of the QEW.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres have been league doormats for much of this decade, but both teams enter the 2017-18 season with brighter days ahead.

With both clubs expected to at least compete for a playoff spot this spring, fans can expect the rivalry to pick up, something Sabres star Jack Eichel seems fine with.

“We don’t like them. They don’t like us,” Eichel told Mike Zeisberger of Postmedia on Thursday.

It’s no secret that the big-city Leafs tend to have a large contingent of supporters when they visit Buffalo. Eichel couldn’t help but slam his fists into the glass after scoring a goal in a March 25 victory at KeyBank Center. Zeisberger asked Eichel about the gesture, which the young American admitted was a territorial move.

“Obviously, that specific night, there were a lot of Leafs fans in the building, and I just thought we needed to defend our own building,” he said. “It was our duty to do that.”

The two teams played in Buffalo again on April 3, this time a Sabres loss. It was during that game where Leafs centre Nazem Kadri got into a heated encounter with several Sabres players when he taunted Buffalo defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen after scoring a goal. Kadri’s tally came just after taking quite a few cross-checks to the back from Sabres’ Zemgus Girgensons.

“We play each other a lot. There are some confrontations,” said Eichel. “And I like to embrace that, and I think all our guys do, as well.”

While the Sabres-Leafs rivalry is born out of geography, Auston Matthews‘ arrival in Toronto has given the two teams duelling franchise centremen.

Thus far in their young careers, Eichel’s certainly been the more outspoken of the two, though the 20-year-old said he sees more to Matthews’ demeanour than what might meet the eye.

“I think Auston has a bit of a confidence and a swagger to him,” said Eichel. “He’s got a bit of that ‘f— you!’ mentality in him. And that’s a good thing.

“He doesn’t think he has to owe anyone anything.”

What’ll make Buffalo-Toronto games so much fun for the next while though, is that the player comparisons go much further than just their two budding superstars.

The Leafs drafted William Nylander eighth overall in 2014, and two years later the Sabres took his brother, Alexander, eighth as well.

Kadri is one of the game’s top two-way centres, and the Sabres can counter with Ryan O’Reilly. Buffalo hopes Ristolainen can lead the charge as a top offensive defenceman, much in the way the Leafs hope the same for Morgan Rielly. Mitch Marner, meet Sam Reinhart.

Curiously, the two teams won’t meet in the 2017-18 regular season until March 3, as the NHL schedule crams all four matchups between the Atlantic Division foes into one month.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see those games having a playoff-like atmosphere to them.