Everyone on both teams was trying to downplay Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel, the No. 1 pick vs. the No. 2 pick, two potentially generational talents who have so far been every bit as good as advertised. They were lying to themselves, and it only took 22 seconds from puck drop for them to be proved wrong.
“To be honest, it’s not a big deal,” said McDavid, who claimed he was more excited about playing in Buffalo because his friends and family could drive down from Ontario to see him. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma claimed the rivalry was “made up.”
Mmmhm. Just some regular Oilers-Sabres excitement. That’s why the fans went nuts when Eichel beat McDavid on two faceoffs in 15 seconds. That’s why fans booed every time McDavid touched the puck. That’s why literally anybody paid attention to a March game between two bottom-five teams.
The “McEichel Bowl,” despite being a very dumb name, is a very big deal for the league. If all goes as it should, these two 19-year-olds will be facing off for many, many years to come, and will be ready to assume their roles as the faces of the NHL once Crosby and Ovechkin have exited their primes. This one game may not have mattered, but it was the first of many. And both rose to the occasion, even if only McDavid found the net.
He did it twice, because he’s really an incredible hockey player already. After Cal O’Reilly tied things at 1 in the third, the game went to overtime, where both players’ speed was really allowed to shine. Eichel made a nice move to get a chance, a wild spinning backhand, and then it was back the other way, McDavid skating the length of the ice and ending things on a nifty backhand of his own.
“There’s eight guys on the ice,” Eichel said when asked about having to watch McDavid score the winner, “so it’s a team game.”
“Those backhands are tough to pick up [for a goalie],” McDavid said. “I had lots of speed, and all I was thinking was get it on net.”
It wasn’t pretty—not much of this game between two third-rate teams was pretty—but it was McDavid scoring early, scoring late, and taking the first matchup between the two. Future editions of which, we hope and assume, will be contested between competitive teams with important things on the line.
It was only Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who will coach both players on Team North America in this fall’s World Cup, who allowed himself to look bigger picture.
“I thought 15 and 97 were probably the two best players on the ice tonight,” McLellan said. “They didn’t disappoint.
“They’re fabulous. 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.”