It’s not all that long ago that Connor McDavid was on “home” ice inside the First Niagara Center.
At least for a night, he was again Tuesday.
McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers’ wunderkind rookie, scored both goals in his team’s 2-1 overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres, electrifying a sellout crowd that was buzzing with excitement.
McDavid has done something similar before. His junior team, the Erie Otters, played inside the FNC on Oct. 23, 2014, with McDavid scoring a goal and adding three assists in an 8-4 win over Niagara. That game was a rather blatant display of what the Sabres’ intention was last season – to have the best chance at drafting McDavid by losing as many games as possible. Tuesday’s outcome showed why.
The strategy employed last season by Sabres General Manager Tim Murray gave Buffalo a 20-percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick, and McDavid, but a 100-percent chance of landing Jack Eichel, the other player labeled a generational talent should his team finish in the basement.
With that latter scenario playing out, Tuesday’s matchup between the 26th- and 29th-place teams in the NHL got a shot of Red Bull. McDavid and Eichel did their best to downplay their first meeting as professionals (McDavid missed Edmonton’s game against Buffalo in December due to injury), but there was an undeniable, playoff-like buzz leading up to the game.
That only built when McDavid opened the scoring 22 seconds into the game. After a turnover by Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, McDavid got in alone and turned Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner inside out for a tap-in goal before fans had even settled into their seats.
Afterward, McDavid heard boos from the home crowd – a sure sign he’s arrived as a star.
Those boos rained down again after McDavid’s backhand game-winner with 1:12 remaining in overtime.
“Any time you can score an overtime goal, it feels good,” McDavid said. “To do it in front of friends and family, it feels even better.”
Before the game, McDavid reminisced about his days with the Otters. Several of his former teammates made the trip, as did friends and family from his hometown of Richmond Hill, Ont.
“Definitely feels like a second home here, just with it being so close to Toronto, so I’m excited,” McDavid said.
So, yes, McDavid did have Tuesday’s game circled on his calendar, but not because it was his first professional game against the player drafted right behind him.
As he did at every turn leading up to the game, McDavid stressed after it that playing against Eichel attached no added significance.
“To be honest, that’s not a big deal,” he said. “I keep saying this game was a big deal for me because it was in front of friends and family. It just feels good to get the win in front of them.”
While the hockey world may build up McDavid-Eichel as the next coming of Crosby-Ovechkin, both rookies aren’t buying in.
“We don’t really look at it like that, so I mean, for me and I think for both of us, it’s just Buffalo versus Edmonton,” McDavid said before the game when asked if their rivalry, even if it is media-driven, can be good for the NHL. “I know that a lot of people are going to maybe tune in because they’re looking at it maybe a little bit differently, but for us in our room, me personally, I think Jack said earlier today, too, it’s not about just me and him, it’s about, you know, the game and two teams that both need wins.”
McDavid, who was named NHL Rookie of the Month for February on Tuesday after scoring 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 14 games, reiterated what he said Monday about knowing Eichel on a very basic level from their time spent together during the pre-draft process, but there will be a chance for them to get better acquainted in the near future. Both players are expected to be named Wednesday to Team North America – a collection of American and Canadian players 23 or younger – for the World Cup of Hockey that will be held in Toronto in September.
“You know whether ... we’re both on the team, it will be interesting to see. But if we are, it’ll be fun,” McDavid said. “It’ll be a good opportunity to get a chance to play with him. I think the media always has us pegged as not liking each other or being rivals or anything like that, but we really just don’t know each other, so that’ll be a good chance to get to play with him.”