PITTSBURGH – After downplaying the notion that Sidney Crosby’s first head-to-head meeting with Connor McDavid carried any extra meaning than your typical Pittsburgh-Edmonton game in November, the coaches found a sense of occasion.
First Todd McLellan pencilled McDavid in for the opening faceoff.
Then Mike Sullivan countered with Crosby.
It went that way for a huge portion of the evening, with Nos. 97 and 87 battling shift after shift after shift at even strength, until eventually Conor Sheary scored late to give the Penguins a 4-3 comeback victory.
“It was a good chance for me to kind of measure myself against the best player in the world,” said McDavid. “Going head-to-head with him all night was a good test.”
This was the rare moment where the hype met the reality.
At its core, hockey is a team game that simply doesn’t lend itself to individual matchups. But with the Oilers and Penguins both content to go power on power with their top centres, we had an opportunity to see an intersection of greatness.
What a show.
In one 20-second stretch during the second period you had McDavid getting stopped by Matt Murray on a 2-on-1, which turned into a 4-on-1 for the Penguins where Cam Talbot denied Patric Hornqvist, which became a Jordan Eberle goal after he used McDavid as a passing decoy before sliding it home.
Edmonton had a 3-1 lead at that point and McDavid had a primary assist on each of the goals. The Penguins couldn’t find much of an answer for his breath-taking speed. He had moved into a tie for the NHL scoring lead with 17 points.
“If you’re even with him, you’re in big trouble, so you’d better make sure you’re a step ahead,” said Crosby.
“I thought Connor matched up well – he played really well in his D zone,” added Eberle. “A lot of that was creating us odd-man rushes.”
Sullivan controlled the last line change as the coach on the home bench, and followed his usual pattern of giving Crosby the toughest matchup. He believes his captain plays such a strong two-way game that he’ll eventually wear down an opponent by keeping them pinned in the defensive zone.
The shot attempts against the McDavid trio were basically 50-50, which prompted Sullivan to shift things up for a time during the second period. That was about when Pittsburgh started clawing its way back into the game.
“I thought (McDavid) had the better of that (Crosby) line the first half of the game,” said McLellan.
“It just goes to show when you’re playing what’s likely the best team in the National Hockey League you need everybody going,” he added. “It doesn’t matter how well the star players play.”
Crosby finished the game without a point for the first time this season, but that didn’t accurately reflect his contribution to the win. Were it not for a pass that innocently deflected off Hornqvist’s skate, he would have had an assist on Carl Hagelin’s second-period goal.
He also drove the puck around the net moments before Sheary got the winner – a goal that was recorded as unassisted because Oilers forward Benoit Pouliot accidentally batted it past Talbot.
Ultimately, this was a night that meant a lot more to the 19-year-old McDavid than it did to the Penguins captain. He was facing his idol for the first time and had his eyes opened right away.
“It was pretty funny to take the opening draw against him and have him snap it back,” said McDavid.
Crosby wound up winning eight of the 11 faceoffs he took against the second-year Oilers centre, and even jostled with him for space on the opening shift. They often came together in defensive situations before trying to lead the offensive breakout each time the puck was transitioned.
It hearkened back to an earlier era when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were trying to one-up each other. The most legendary figures each of these organizations has ever known always found another gear when they were on the ice together.
Consider: Gretzky registered a point in 24 of their 25 head-to-head meetings while Lemieux found the scoresheet in 20 of them.
Given the 10-year gap in age between McDavid and Crosby, it’s unlikely we’ll see them face each other that many times. These will be relatively rare occurrences.
That helps explain why McDavid could see past the disappointment of a tough Oilers loss to acknowledge that something special had gone on here at PPG Paints Arena.
“There definitely was a little bit of … excitement to play against a guy like him – someone that I grew up watching,” he said. “It definitely was not hard to get up for this one.”
Among the crowd were a handful of No. 97 Erie Otters sweaters – a sign that many had made the two-hour trip from the city where McDavid once dominated the Ontario Hockey League.
Given how well he performed against the best player in the sport, it was yet one more reminder that it’s only a matter of time before he’s doing the same thing in the NHL.
“(He played) very well,” said McLellan. “There’s no other way of putting it, he had a tremendous game. He was effective all over the rink and that’s great.”
It’s what we expect the great ones to do.