It only took 22 seconds for boos to rain down on Connor McDavid on Tuesday at First Niagara Center here in Buffalo. That was all the time it took for the spectacular rookie to score in his first game against the Sabres and their fine young centre, Jack Eichel.
Fans were still settling in their seats when 19-year-old McDavid put a nifty backhand past goaltender Robin Lehner, giving Edmonton the lead in a matchup that has been greatly anticipated since McDavid was chosen first in last June’s NHL draft, and Eichel was taken right behind him.
And the Oilers centre rose to the occasion later, winning the game in overtime.
McDavid scored with 1:12 left in overtime on a backhander as he charged the net. Seconds before, Eichel had driven the puck down into the Oilers end, and barely missed a spectacular, spinning backhand that just went wide of the net.
Seconds after he scored, his parents Brian and Kelly McDavid exchanged high fives in their seats close to the ice. Kelly hugged Stephanie Catalde, Connor’s billet mother in Erie, and Brian slapped palms with Bob Catalde, his billet dad. The group sat together near the Oilers’ bench.
For the players, it was a night like most others, just another small step along the way to long and distinguished careers. For the sellout crowd gathered, it was more than that – it might have been the most exciting game played in Buffalo in five years.
“I think everybody was hoping the Sabres would get McDavid, but Eichel is not really much of a step down,” Matt Licata Jr. said as he sat wearing his Eichel jersey in (716), a Buffalo sports bar where a goal light flashes each time the home-town team scores. “Hopefully, we won a prize. We’ve got the next 10 years to see.”
Hours before the game, Eichel appeared uncomfortable during a jammed news conference when asked about the significance of his first meeting with McDavid.
“It’s another game,” Eichel said. “It’s the next one on the schedule, so it is special for me.
“[People] want to make this about me and him, but it’s a team game,” Eichel said. “We’re playing the Oilers tonight, not Connor McDavid.”
Eichel has played each of the Sabres’ 64 games and has acquitted himself well. He is on a pace to score 53 points, and is ranked in the top five among rookies in goals, assists, points and shots.
McDavid had just been named the NHL’s top rookie for the month of October when he suffered a broken clavicle on Nov. 3 that caused him to miss 37 games. On Tuesday, he was named the rookie of the month for February, meaning he has now accomplished the feat in the only two months he has played. He entered Tuesday’s game with 29 points in 27 games, and added to that before the game’s first whistle.
“Jack has had a great year and that is good to see, and it’s great for the league,” McDavid said in a news conference following the morning skate. “[People] are talking about us being rivals and not liking each other, but really it is more like we don’t even know each other. I only know him at a basic level.”
McDavid said he hoped that he and Eichel would both be named on Wednesday to the North American squad for the World Cup of Hockey.
“If we were, that would be fun,” he said. “It will give us an opportunity to get to see how each other plays. We don’t look like it as being rivals. It’s not about me and him; it’s about two teams that just need wins.”
In the respective dressing rooms, teammates were saying something else – that they knew that their top draftees were driven on this night, beyond any other, to succeed.
“I’m sure that Jack has it in the back of his head,” Evander Kane, the Sabres’ winger, said. “When you play against a guy who was drafted ahead of you, you take it as a personal challenge and always want to outplay them.”
Dan Bylsma, who coached Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, said that the hype leading up to this game was unwarranted. McDavid and Eichel may become the next Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin, but they aren’t there quite yet.
“These are two young guys in the infancy of their careers,” Bylsma said. “The draft placed them in this position as rivals, but we are clearly not to that point yet. It is too early to put a huge significance on it.
“But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about seeing them play each other.”
Todd McLellan, the Oilers coach, agreed.
“They are two fabulous players, and both of us are very lucky to have them on our teams,” he said. “We are lucky to have them in this league, and fans are lucky to get the chance to watch them play. They are both generational players, but they each still have some work to do.”
McLellan said McDavid has been especially dynamic since he returned to the lineup following the all-star break. But he is still learning the league and is probably a bit behind Eichel in that, because the Buffalo rookie has played more games.
“Jack has had a tremendous season,” McLellan said. “I don’t think the outside world understands how hard it is for these two guys in particular. They are 18- and 19-year-olds and they are trying to carry their teams.”
Still, the crowd seemed to think there was a rivalry. After all, 22 seconds was all it took to put the Oilers ahead and, after McDavid scored, there were far more jeers than cheers.Report Typo/Error
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