Much to their dismay, Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are linked. There’s been years of hype and comparisons. The rookies and everyone around them go out of their way to point out hockey is a team game and not a one-on-one competition, but sports have a funny way of reminding people that rivalries are what make competitions great.
It may be a long-distance one, but Eichel and McDavid are going to have a rivalry based on their first NHL meeting.
After a full day of distancing themselves from each other, the top two picks from last year’s NHL Draft were the final two players to touch the puck Tuesday night. Eichel had a chance to win the game in overtime for the Buffalo Sabres. McDavid won it for the Edmonton Oilers.
Just nine seconds after Eichel’s scintillating rush chance went wide of the net, McDavid found the back of Buffalo’s goal to deliver a 2-1 victory with 1:12 left in OT. McDavid started his memorable night by scoring only 22 seconds after the puck dropped.
“Anytime you can score an overtime goal, it feels good,” McDavid 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.”
McDavid pounded the glass while his family members exchanged high-fives in the First Niagara Center stands. Eichel headed to the dressing room and waited for the inevitable question about seeing his rival score after he didn’t.
“There’s eight guys on the ice, so it’s a team game,” he said.
Most of the fans put extra attention on two. The crowd cheered loudly when Eichel won two faceoffs against McDavid during the first period. The fans booed when McDavid had the puck.
They rose from their seats when Eichel took a pass from Josh Gorges in overtime and sped up the ice. The center went to his right around defenseman Andrej Sekera, then fired a spinning backhand wide while falling to the ice.
The crowd gasped when the carom off the boards went to McDavid. The center flew into the Buffalo zone, went past defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and slipped a backhand along the ice that slid through the pads of Robin Lehner.
“I probably should have just kept going on my forehand, tried taking it to the net,” Eichel said. “Tough bounce, breaks him out and the puck ends up in the back of our net.”
Anyone who watched McDavid play junior hockey while dreaming of him wearing a Buffalo uniform figured he’d score if given the chance. He did it by blowing past the Sabres’ No. 1 defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen (who played 24:03, including 10:15 during the third period and overtime), and beating a goalie who’d stopped 39 of the previous 40 shots.
“He’s a good player,” Ristolainen said. “He has full-ice speed. I was there. Tough to gap up, and he made a backhand goal.”
McDavid opened the scoring on the backhand, too. He stripped the puck from Zach Bogosian, got behind the defense for a pass and deked Lehner to the ice.
“He’s a quick player, so he was right there,” Bogosian said. “He makes good, heads-up plays. He comes as advertised. He’s a good player, and he’ll be a good player for a lot of years to come.”
He’ll also be the center of attention, as much as people hope he isn’t.
“We didn’t play well at all,” Eichel said. “It started with the way we came out. We just didn’t do a lot of good things as a team.”