Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Another Eagerly-Anticipated Matchup

Last night, the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated, first-ever matchup of last summer’s top two draft picks finally arrived.  Connor McDavid, the first overall  pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft taken by the Edmonton Oilers, faced Jack Eichel, taken second overall in that draft by the Buffalo Sabres.  One versus two, Canada versus the United States, two teams looking to their precocious rookies to be the spark that lights the fire to launch them back into the Stanley Cup conversation.  It did not disappoint.

Bot McDavid and Eichel logged more than 20 minutes of ice time, both recorded five shots on goal.  But in this game, Edmonton beat Buffalo, in part because Canada beat the United States.  It was McDavid recording both Oiler goals, the second one in overtime, in a 2-1 win, Eichel being held off the score sheet. 

It was reminiscent of another inaugural matchup between a pair of highly thought-of rookies more than ten years ago.  One born and bred in Canada, the other a native son of Mother Russia.  Sidney Crosby, taken first overall in the 2005 entry draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, faced Alex Ovechkin, picked first overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2004 draft.  If there was one thing (and there might have been only one thing) good to come out of the 2004-2005 lockout, it was that these two players, both thought to be generational talents, would meet for the first time as rookies.

The first meeting of Ovechkin and Crosby took place on a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, November 22, 2005.  For both teams, the struggles before the 2004-2005 lockout that had them finishing at the bottom of their respective divisions in the 2003-2004 season carried over into the first six weeks of the first season after the lockout. 

Pittsburgh lost their first nine games of the season, going 0-4-5 (it did not prevent the league from naming Crosby its “rookie-of-the-month” for October), and had won just three of their last eight games before facing the Capitals, all of them by one goal, two of them in the new gimmick of the shootout.  The Caps were hardly better.  They lost four of six games before facing the Penguins, including an 8-5 pasting at the hands of the Sabres in Buffalo five days before they headed to Pittsburgh.

The rookies, though, were living up to the hype and then some.  Crosby was 11-15-26 in 21 games before facing the Caps.  Ovechkin put an opponent through the glass on his first NHL shift, scored two goals in his NHL debut, and had a whopping 15 goals in his first 20 NHL games before leading the Caps to Pittsburgh.

The outcome of this game would resemble that between Edmonton and Buffalo that featured McDavid and Eichel, but how the teams got there was very different.  The Penguins jumped on the Caps early, scoring four goals in the game’s first 15 minutes, one of them by Crosby, who split the Capitals’ defense at the blue line and snapped a shot under the crossbar that popped the water bottle off the net. 

That opening 20 minutes could have doused the flame of intensity surrounding this game, but Pittsburgh was a young team prone to mistakes.  The Caps took advantage of the Penguins in the second period with goals 14 seconds apart by Chris Clark and Brooks Laich.  Then it was the Caps’ turn to let their youth show.  They could not get any closer after grabbing the momentum, and the Penguins got one back late in the period on a goal by Zigmund Palffy, set up by Crosby and Brooks Orpik. 

The Caps had one more push in them, though.  Matt Pettinger scored with an assist from Ovechkin early in the third period, and Brian Willsie scored a shorthanded goal less than two minutes later to get the Caps within one.  Then, with just under seven minutes left, a shot by Brian Sutherby was stopped by Pens goalie Sebastien Caron, but not cleanly.  Ben Clymer jumped into the crease and jabbed at the puck as Caron was trying to close his glove over it.  The puck, Clymer’s stick, and Caron’s glove all crossed the goal line.  The referee gave a quick “no-goal” signal before jumping in to break up a scrum that developed in front of Caron.  The play was reviewed, and the call was upheld, the Caps’ last chance to make a new game of it going by the wayside.

Pittsburgh won the contest, 5-4, but in the larger scheme of things it would not matter a lot.  Pittsburgh went on to finish last in their division again, recording no more standings points than they did in the 2003-2004 season (58).  Washington finished last in their division again as well, although they did improve by 11 points from their 2003-2004 season and finished 12 points ahead of the Penguins (70).

What mattered was that this was the first contest between two extraordinary rookies who would go on to carve out a large place in the history of the NHL in the ten years since that first meeting.  Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have taken that first step on a journey that will see them cross paths several times, each of them hopeful that they will carve out their own significant places in NHL history alongside those of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Photo: Reuters/Ron Schwane

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