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Eichel-Matthews duel draws comparisons to Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry

Maple Leafs' OT victory against Sabres showcased young centers

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- If Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel continue to push each other like they did Tuesday, the NHL may be in store for its next great head-to-head rivalry.

To say the battle between Matthews, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Eichel, of the Buffalo Sabres, has reached the status of the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby storyline would be premature. Ovechkin, the captain of the Washington Capitals, and Crosby, his counterpart with the Pittsburgh Penguins, have built up their fabled matchup for more than a decade since each entered the NHL in the 2005-06 season.

But the riveting theater produced by the two centers in the Maple Leafs' 4-3 overtime victory against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Arena could be a snapshot of what may be a spicy battle for years to come. Matthews, 21, led the Maple Leafs with two goals and an assist; Eichel, 22, scored twice for the Sabres.

"With them having been teammates at one time and all that, it is personal (between them)," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "That's what you want: best on best. I think that in any manner of sport, at the highest level, when you get best on best, it is personal."

Video: TOR@BUF: Matthews scores late in overtime

Matthews and Eichel are pals, having been teammates with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program under-18 team. They played together for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Their friendship masks a fierce desire to win. It's the same type of competitiveness Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau, a veteran of 1,603 NHL games, has seen whenever Crosby and Ovechkin face each other.

"Sid and Ovie. That seems like the comparison the media likes to build up," Marleau said. "You don't want to exaggerate what's going to happen with Auston and Eichel because it's so early in their careers. But then it comes true on the ice. That gets people wanting to talk about it.

"It's like Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. There's always rivalries in the division as well, especially this one."

The Maple Leafs and Sabres each play in the Atlantic Division. Toronto is in second place, Buffalo two points behind in third. The two cities are 100 miles apart. Geography, Marleau said, matters, especially when it means thousands of visiting fans can invade the home team's arena as was the case on Tuesday.

Supporters of each team were treated to the best Matthews and Eichel could offer.

Leading the host Sabres was Eichel, who single-handedly seemed to carry his team on his back, scoring back-to-back goals to give Buffalo a 3-2 lead.

Video: TOR@BUF: Eichel finishes great feed from Ristolainen

But Matthews had the final say on this night.

The game went to overtime thanks to Marleau's tying goal at 14:37 of the third period. Matthews followed with the winner on a wrist shot that whizzed past Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark with 2.7 seconds remaining.

As Matthews pumped his fist and unleashed a scream, Eichel's head slumped in disappointment. Each should hold his head high.

"I think, in the end, you kind of treat it as another game, but when you go against superstars on the other side like himself, I think it elevates your game a bit," Matthews said of facing Eichel. "We knew going into it, it was going to be a tight game. They've been playing extremely well lately, and it definitely went back and forth there. We're happy to walk out of here with two points."

Eichel was understandably down after the loss.

"I thought we played a great game tonight," he said. "Obviously, they get the extra point and it's frustrating, but give us credit … I thought we brought a lot of compete and effort."

The Edmonton Oilers selected Connor McDavid No. 1 in the 2015 NHL Draft, leaving the Sabres to take Eichel at No. 2. But any McDavid-Eichel rivalry is tempered by the fact that the two play in different conferences, meaning they play against each other twice a season. Their only Stanley Cup Playoff matchup would come in the Final. The same dynamic applies to Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine, who was taken at No. 2.

The Sabres and Maple Leafs play each other four times in the regular season and could meet in the first or second round of the playoffs because they are in the same division.

"Playoffs are where rivalries heat up," Marleau said. "That's what happened with Sid and Ovie."

Local talk shows in each city were buzzing on Wednesday over the performances of Matthews and Eichel. The common question asked of listeners: Which head-to-head matchup of NHL greats does Matthews-Eichel have the chance to replicate?

Early returns indicate the obvious choice is Crosby-Ovechkin. Matthews and Eichel haven't reached that stage. Yet. But if Tuesday is any indication, they are well on their way.

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