In the morning, political correctness was all over First Niagara Center to absurd levels. Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel? Of course not. Come on, several dozen media members. This was the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres. They shouldn’t have sold it that way because we weren’t buying.
At least Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, who is going to lead both hockey prodigies when Team North America for the World Cup is announced Wednesday, was philosophical before the game. But after McDavid Magic broke the Sabres’ hearts in overtime, McLellan was finally gushing.
“I thought 15 and 97 were probably the two best players on the ice tonight,” he said. “They didn’t disappoint.”
Pretty accurate description. McDavid scored both goals in Edmonton’s 2-1 victory and his scintillating rush and backhand winner came a scant few seconds after Eichel shot wide on a rush of his own. Eichel looked better in this one than at any point on the Sabres’ California road trip, even in the wake of his near-miss in OT.
“It looks like it could go our way,” said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. “It misses the net and comes to Connor and he goes the other end and buries it. It kind of showed the see-saw in the game. Disappointing.”
For Eichel, excruciating might be a better word.
Eichel took a long time to compose himself before speaking to reporters and there was nary a complaint. Everyone could empathize how tough this one would be for any player, let alone a 19-year-old rookie. The inevitable McDavid question came and an understandably brusque Eichel said of overtime, “There’s eight guys on the ice. It’s a team game.”
The issue, of course, is that so much emphasis for so long have been put on these two players to be the saviors for their woebegone franchises. And both clubs have so far to go. This was some ugly hockey, not remotely close to playoff level.
The Sabres had a complete braincramp off the opening faceoff by the defense pair of Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe and that led to a McDavid goal 22 seconds into the game. Eichel was disturbed how soft and sloppy the team was at times.
This team has scored four goals in the last four games. Getting shut out in Anaheim and Los Angeles is one thing. Scoring just one goal in 64 minutes – and coming within 11 minutes of another blanking – against the Oilers is another thing entirely.
As for McDavid, you sensed his relief. He kept saying this was about having friends and family, from both Toronto and Erie, seeing him play and not about a McEichel matchup. He even said, “I’m definitely excited to get out of Buffalo and move on to the next game.”
Trying to make something of the last roughly 18 games of their lost seasons is all these teams have left. It’s something new for both coaches. McLellan won more games in his first four seasons as an NHL head coach than anyone in history after capturing a Stanley Cup as an assistant under Mike Babcock in Detroit. Bylsma won a Cup four months into his first season in Pittsburgh and was the fastest coach ever to 250 wins. All they knew was winning.
Things are quite a bit different this year. Both are in the NHL’s bottom five. That’s what matters, far more than any McDavid vs. Eichel referendum.
“It’s been a big change but coming into the season your goals are adjusted somewhat,” McLellan said. “You’re a little bit more realistic to what you have. In San Jose and Detroit when I was there, we were kind of nailing the shingles down on the roof if you will. Here we’re still digging the hole and pouring the basement.
“When you look at it that way, you adjust your expectations and you have to adjust your patience level. That’s where we’re at.”
McLellan said he’s relishing the challenge because he chose to take it on. Same with Bylsma and Mike Babcock in Toronto.
The talk about years of failure in Edmonton – and how the Oil is a cautionary tale in Buffalo – really deserved a night off Tuesday. Finally seeing McDavid vs. Eichel in the NHL was worth it.
“They’re fabulous,” McLellan said. “We’re very lucky to have them on our teams, we’re very lucky to have them in our league and the fans are very lucky to watch them play on a nightly basis because they’re gifted, they’re skilled and they’re the future of our game.”
As for Bylsma, he was a big buzzkill.
He spent the morning skate saying McDavid vs. Eichel was “made up”. Yikes. Then he even tried saying it was the same way for Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Good lord. At least he had the sense to backtrack on that a few seconds later and admit the hype for the Pittsburgh-Washington 2009 playoff series was totally lit.
Then came the starting lineups. The visitors fill theirs out first. Edmonton put McDavid’s line out. So who immediately came to Bylsma’s mind to start at center?
Johan Larsson. Seriously. Such a coach. No Eichel. No sense of theater.
The hockey gods sent their own message. It took 22 seconds for McDavid to put the puck in the Buffalo net. About seven minutes into the game, Eichel and McDavid went head to head and it was Eichel who won two faceoffs in 16 seconds. When Eichel took the second, in the Sabres’ defensive zone, there was a big cheer from the crowd.
When does the crowd in any arena cheer the result of a faceoff not in the final 10 seconds or so in a game? This one did. But this whole Eichel-McDavid thing was made up. Right.