Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
NBC had the opportunity to showcase the future of the NHL last night with the first-ever "McEichel Matchup" as Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers visited Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres. It was the first time that the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft faced off against each other and it was slated for a national U.S. audience on the NBC Sports Network.
But the network decided to bail on that game and show a matchup of a known rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. It didn't matter that hockey fans have seen more than their fair share of Sidney Crosby versus Alexander Ovechkin over the course of the last 10 seasons, nor did it matter that McDavid looks as if he'll surpass both of them in the annals of NHL history. Although it might be jumping the gun a bit, McDavid is the real deal.
Perhaps WGR Sabres' beat writer Paul Hamilton put it best when he said that McDavid could be the best prospect since Mario Lemieux while Eichel could be the best since Crosby.
For all but :22 seconds into the first when McDavid scored the first goal of the game and the ten or so seconds prior to McDavid's overtime winner 3:48 into the overtime session, NBC seemed to have made the right call.
It was a sluggish affair at times with plenty of mistakes and turnovers and stoppages. There were fits and spurts during the game and during two long stints, the Oilers hemmed in the Sabres for long periods of time. One of them lasted the final 2:22 of the period but only produced one shot on goal while another one came late in the second and produced a goal with less than a half-a-second remaining on the clock. The would-be goal was eventually overturned on a coach's challenge as Eichel tactfully tied up Edmonton's Anton Lander inside the Buffalo bluline and forced the play off sides.
The Sabres would end up tying the game on a beautiful no-look pass from Sam Reinhart to a streaking Cal O'Reilly at 9:06 of the third period. O'Reilly who had just been called up from Rochester scored his first goal as a Buffalo Sabre and his first one since 2011, according to the Sabres broadcast. They also noted that it was the first time the Sabres lit the lamp in 110:23 stretching back to their game at San Jose. What O'Reilly was doing on a line with Eichel and Reinhart was a real head-scratcher but, mission accomplished. He would never see those linemates again.
It was a good game, probably not on par with the Pittsburgh/Washington matchup, but so what? It was a good enough game for the U.S., especially following the two stars around the ice NBC missed a golden opportunity to showcase the future of the NHL. And what a future it looks to be for McDavid and Eichel.
The two will always be known as "McEichel," forever linked by the 2015 draft class they topped as well as the relentless attention paid not only to them, but to the teams jostling for the draft position to land one of them. And as was the case at the draft, so is the case at this point in time: Jack Eichel is a helluva player, and elite, franchise-type player that any team would love to have. McDavid, however, is that once in a generation-type player that Edmonton was lucky to get after finishing 28th in the league last season.
The difference in the two at this point in time seems to be that McDavid doesn't really need to do anything special on the ice to be the best rookie in the league, with all due respect to Chicago's Artemi Panarin and Eichel as well. It comes so naturally. McDavid is simply a special talent who has generational skills, skating and hockey sense. Eichel, for his part has those same traits on an elite-level including blazing speed and an off the charts shot but at this point in time, it seems as if he needs to reach ever so slightly to feel as if he's on McDavid's level.
When all's said and done, last night, or "round-one" if you prefer, belonged to McDavid who scored Edmonton's only two goals in the Oilers' 2-1 overtime win and it's a shame that hockey fans in the U.S. couldn't see it on NBCSN. These two teams are scheduled to meet only twice a year and the only time they'll ever meet in the playoffs is if they both reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Somehow I get the feeling that next year, Buffalo/Edmonton will get preferred air time in part because I believe that these two teams won't see the bottom-10 again, but mainly because these two players are only going to get better. Despite proclamations from both McDavid and Eichel that there is no rivalry, you can bet your bottom dollar that McDavid had a big smile inside after his performance while Eichel will use this loss as an intense motivational tool for round-2.
Hopefully NBC will get it right next year.