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Eichel vs. Matthews: The rivalry begins

TORONTO -- It's the Leafs and Sabres for the 203rd time in the regular season since Buffalo entered the NHL in 1970. But Tuesday night's game in Air Canada Centre has a little bit more significance than your average mid-January affair.

That's because It's Eichel-Matthews I.

Jack Eichel, No. 2 overall pick of 2015, vs. Auston Matthews, No. 1 overall pick of 2016, for the first time in the NHL. Teammates with the US National Development Team, the World Juniors, Team North America of the World Cup. Now foes in a long-time rivalry.

"It's going to be tough for sure," Matthews said here today. "Jack is a special player you have to be really aware of because he can do some damage out there. He's got that deceptive stride that's incredible. He takes one stride and he's past you. You have to watch for him. You think you're with him and he takes one stride and he's gone.

"He's a special player. We've both come from different places, had different routes to get to the same place. But it's a testimony what USA Hockey can do to produce high-end talent. Hopefully that can continue."

Eichel missed the first potential meeting this year, a 2-1 Leafs win in November at KeyBank Center, due to his high ankle sprain. While trying to simply focus on building off Monday's 4-1 win over Dallas, Eichel had to answer the requisite Matthews questions today from the Toronto media horde.

"Auston is a pretty normal guy, does a lot of the same stuff we all do. He's a good guy and I know him pretty well," Eichel said. "Ann Arbor, World Cup, World Juniors. I've spent a lot of time with him. He's a good dude and I'm happy to see him have success."

The Leafs are currently third in the Atlantic Division with 48 points, five ahead of Buffalo with two games in hand. In the playoffs in a year nobody picked them to be. Matthews' 21 goals and 37 points are obviously a big reason why.

"We were going through a stretch where we weren't winning games and people were saying we were going to be another lottery pick," Matthews said. "Now we're in the playoffs so now we're a playoff team. We're halfway through the season now. There's a lot of ups and downs and we just have to move forward and get better."

"They've had a good year so far. They have a lot of young guys and have been pretty hot of late," Eichel said. "For us, it has to be a simple game and try to make it hard on them.

"You look at the two teams and it's pretty similar: Some highly skilled guys up front, D that like to join the play. They play a fast game. It should be a good one."

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