Eyes of the hockey world on McDavid vs. Matthews

Tonight marks the first-ever NHL meeting between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the two players quickly emerging as focal points in the hockey world.

There is no truth to the speculation that the NHL went dark Monday night in order to give Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid a chance to go out trick-or-treating. But it wouldn’t be a stretch. These players are so young and are driving so much hype that both of those scenarios actually could be possible.

So it should come as no surprise that there was an enormous amount of anticipation at the Air Canada Center Monday for the morning skates leading up to the first ever NHL head-to-head matchup between Matthews and McDavid. Wayne Gretzky was in the house, so was Bobby Orr in a classic collision between past and future greatness. It was almost surreal, no more surreal than when McDavid came to the podium to talk about the player who followed him as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft last June.

“He’s a good kid,” McDavid said of Matthews. That’s funny, considering McDavid was born just 212 days before the good kid. In fact, if Matthews had been born two days earlier, both would have been eligible for the 2015 draft and wouldn’t that have been fun to watch? Both players, in classic hockey player style, downplayed the importance of the head-to-head matchup, instead focusing on the teams involved. That is understandable. But to everyone on the outside, it was a matchup between McDavid and Matthews and the focal point of the hockey world. (This just in: Maple Leafs teammate William Nylander edged Matthews as the NHL’s rookie of the month for October. But Nylander was chosen by the league, the same league that failed to make this game a national broadcast on a Saturday night and made it so the only way you could get the game in the United States is to have NHL Gamecenter.)

“He’s mature, he knows what’s going on with the matchup,” teammate Morgan Rielly said of Matthews. “I think he sees this as a personal challenge for sure. I think that’s just human nature. He knows it’s coming up and I think he’s going to rise to the challenge and he knows what’s going on.”

Matthews said he thinks he played against McDavid in a minor hockey tournament in Canada. McDavid says he doesn’t ever remember playing against Matthews prior to the 2015 World Junior Championship when Canada defeated USA 5-3 on New Year’s Eve with McDavid picking up an assist and Matthews going scoreless. “Other than us being the first overall picks in back-to-back drafts, that’s about the only thing in common we have,” McDavid said. “I know him pretty well, he’s a good guy. It’s not like I have a hate-on for him.”

Both Nylander and Mitch Marner have more been quietly excellent, but the Leafs are already developing into Matthews’ team. And he and McDavid are emerging as the most likely to pick up the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry that everyone seems to want to see. The possibilities are tantalizing, starting with the matchup tonight. For his part, McDavid is growing increasingly comfortable in the spotlight. He’s already gone through all the chaos surrounding the first game at Rogers Place in Edmonton and the outdoor game against the Winnipeg Jets. Matthews, after setting a record by scoring four goals in his NHL debut, is adjusting well to life in the fishbowl, as evidenced by the fact that he’s just two points out of the scoring lead, trailing the league leader McDavid.

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There is no getting around the fact that much of the Leafs’ game plan centers around at least trying to neutralize the fastest and most dynamic player in the league. The Leafs know McDavid is going to get his chances and if he doesn’t, he’ll make them himself. Nazem Kadri will likely see a lot of McDavid in a checking role with the Leafs having last change, and there’s a very good chance that the tandem of Rielly and likely either Nikita Zaitsev or Connor Carrick will be on the back end when No. 97 is on the ice.

Rielly, a talented and relatively young player in his own right, expressed excitement about facing the challenge. But it will be enormous. Often a player of McDavid’s speed and skill would necessitate a defenseman leaving a gap so as not to get caught flat-footed once McDavid starts gathering speed. But Reilly said that might be a recipe for disaster, too, since McDavid can use that extra space to gain even more speed, which can lead to him blowing past defenders in prime scoring areas. “Once he gets a step on you, you’re pretty much hooped unless you want to take a penalty,” Rielly said. “You know that whatever happens, there will be a conversation about it tomorrow. You just hope you’re on the winning end.”

As far as the Oilers are concerned, they know they have to worry about Matthews, but there are some other terrific young players to worry about as well. “You have to, he’s that talented,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said of Matthews. “Our group of players are beginning to understand his talent level, his skill level. Fortunately for us as a coaching staff, some of us have been around Auston and Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and Connor have played with (at the World Cup) so they can spread the news that he is the real thing.”