BUFFALO, N.Y. — For much of last season, it looked like Connor McDavid might end up with the Buffalo Sabres. The first overall pick in last year’s NHL draft got to show the city what it’s missing on Tuesday night.
McDavid scored twice, including in overtime, to lead the Edmonton Oilers to a 2-1 victory over the Sabres in an anticipated matchup against another top rookie, Jack Eichel.
McDavid and Eichel provided a buzz for this one even though the Oilers and Sabres are both among the NHL’s bottom five teams. Eichel was picked right after McDavid in last year’s draft, and both players are considered potentially generational talents.
As has been the case with the humble rookie, McDavid downplayed the matchup with Eichel before and after the game.
“To be honest, that’s not a big deal,” McDavid said. “I keep saying this game was a big deal for me because it was in front of friends and family. It just feels good to get the win in front of them.”
McDavid grew up in suburban Toronto and played junior hockey 90 miles away in Erie, Pennsylvania.
McDavid scored 22 seconds into the game, and then got the winner by blowing past Buffalo’s defence seconds after Eichel spun around a defender and missed just wide with a twirling backhand attempt.
“I probably should have kept going on my forehand, just try to take it to the net,” Eichel said. “Tough bounce. Break them out, and the puck ends up in the back of our net.”
It’s not as if Eichel didn’t have his chances. He tied for the team-lead with five shots on goal.
“I thought (Eichel) and (McDavid) were the two best players on the ice tonight,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. “They are fun players to watch and they didn’t disappoint by any means.”
Cam Talbot made 31 saves for the Oilers, and Edmonton began a four-game trip with its second straight win.
Cal O’Reilly scored his first goal of the season for the Sabres and Robin Lehner made 39 saves.
Lehner made five saves during the overtime period and the Sabres killed off a 2-minute penalty for having too many men on the ice.
“The 4-on-3 was probably one of the only positives to the game,” Sabres defenceman Zach Bogosian said.
Buffalo tied it 9:06 into the third period. Rookie centre Sam Reinhart, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, made a spinning, no-look, backhand pass to set up O’Reilly for a short backhand in front of the net.
Former Sabre Andrej Sekera appeared to score off a rebound in the final second of the second period, but the goal was overturned after Sabres coach Dan Bylsma challenged that Anton Lander was offside on the play.
McDavid, the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for February, made an immediate impact, creating a scoring chance on the forecheck and capitalizing on it to put the Oilers ahead before Eichel even got on the ice.
After losing the opening faceoff, McDavid stripped the puck from Bogosian near the blue line. Jordan Eberle tipped the puck back to McDavid on the left side of the crease, where he faked a wrist shot and slid to his right to tap a backhand behind a sprawling Lehner, drawing boos from the sellout crowd at First Niagara Center.
“We didn’t play well at all,” Eichel said. “It started with the way we came out.”
McDavid snapped a five-game goal drought and has 19 points in 15 games since returning from a broken clavicle last month. He has 12 goals and 31 points in 28 games this season. Eichel has 17 goals and 41 points in 64 games.
McDavid and Eichel have been linked since September 2014, when NHL scouts projected them to be the top two draft prospects. In Buffalo, fans were so excited over the chance of the Sabres drafting one or the other they created the nickname, “McEichel,” combining both players’ last names.
The Sabres finished last in the league last season, but were relegated to picking second after the Oilers won the draft lottery.
The game also came one day before the Canadian-born McDavid and American-born Eichel are expected to be named among the first 16 players selected to Team North America’s World Cup of Hockey roster. The squad will consist of players 23 and younger and will be coached by McLellan.