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Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine could be great rivalry

Maple Leafs center, Jets forward will play first of many NHL games against one another on Wednesday

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have a bond that could link them together forever, similar to what we expect from Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, to what we've seen from Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin and what we remember from Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

Matthews and Laine, the top two picks in the 2016 NHL Draft respectively, are rookies now. They play different positions. They play in opposite conferences, Matthews for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference and Laine for the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference.

They don't seem like rivals, except they are. That's why they're linked and why the NHL can benefit from them for years to come.

When there is mention of one, you inevitably hear about the other. When one of them does something special, like Matthews did with a historic four-goal NHL debut last Wednesday, all eyes will turn to the other one to see if he can match it, and how.

That will be the storyline Wednesday, when Matthews and Laine oppose each other for the first time in the NHL when the Jets host the Maple Leafs at MTS Centre (8 p.m. ET; SN, NHL.TV).

The spotlight that will shine on them in Winnipeg is a smaller version of the one that will shine on them throughout their careers, the same one that shines on all generational talents who either come into the NHL at the same time or go through their prime years in the same window.

Video: TOR@OTT: Matthews bursts onto scene with four goals

Crosby and Ovechkin have been illuminated under it since they came into the NHL together in the 2005-06 season. Every game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals has taken on a special feel because of those two.

They've met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice, with Crosby and the Penguins getting the better of Ovechkin and the Capitals each time. Crosby has won the Stanley Cup twice while Ovechkin hasn't played past the second round.

Individually, Crosby is the active leader and fifth all-time among players with more than 650 games in points per game for a career at 1.33 (938 in 707 games). Ovechkin is the active leader in goals per game at .624 (525 in 841 games).

The debate over who is better, Crosby or Ovechkin, has raged since they tore up the NHL as rookies 12 seasons ago. That it's not a fair debate given how different they and their responsibilities are doesn't seem to matter. It will continue long after they're done playing.

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, the same could happen with Matthews and Laine.

Gretzky and Lemieux can attest to that even though Lemieux didn't debut in the NHL until 1984, after Gretzky won the first of his four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers.

Gretzky is "The Great One" with 61 NHL records, but many pundits will argue Lemieux was better. Many of them wonder if his numbers would be equal to or better than Gretzky's had his career not been cut short because of a debilitating back injury and cancer.

Gretzky averaged .601 goals per game and 1.92 points per game in his career (894 goals, 2857 points in 1,487 games). Lemieux averaged .754 goals per game and 1.88 points per game in his career (690 goals, 1,723 points in 915 games).

The debate makes the rivalry between Gretzky and Lemieux live years after they stopped playing. Who cares if it has no bearing on their legacies?

Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic took the spotlight from Gretzky and Lemieux in the mid-1990s and carried it into the new century, standing front and center during the days of the great Detroit Red Wings-Colorado Avalanche rivalry.

Detroit and Colorado met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs five times from 1996-02 and combined to win the Stanley Cup five times in that span. Yzerman and the Red Wings won in 1997, 1998 and 2002; Sakic and the Avalanche won in 1996 and 2001.

That Yzerman and Sakic were drafted four years apart (Yzerman in 1983, Sakic in 1987) never mattered as the rivalry turned white-hot.

They were, in fact, almost identical in the 17 seasons that their careers overlapped (1988-2006), when Sakic averaged 1.20 points per game (1,489 points in 1,237 games) and Yzerman averaged 1.18 points per game (1,375 points in 1,159 games).

Similarly, the seven years that separate goalies Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur matter little when it comes to the bond that ties them. You can't have an argument about who is the best goalie of all time without mentioning each of them in the conversation.

Video: CAR@WPG: Laine snipes first NHL goal on power play

Roy came first and set the mark with what was then an NHL-record 551 wins. Brodeur, motivated by Roy, smashed it, finishing his career with a seemingly unbreakable NHL record of 691 wins.

Brodeur won 363 games and the Stanley Cup three times and Roy won 326 games and the Cup twice in the 10 seasons that their careers overlapped (1993-2003).

Take it way back to the Original Six era and there is Gordie Howe playing foil first to Maurice "Rocket" Richard in the late 1940s and 50s and then to Bobby Hull in the 1960s and 70s.

Howe scored 446 goals to Richard's 426 in the 14 NHL seasons they overlapped (1946-60). Hull had 554 NHL goals compared to Howe's 433 when they overlapped from 1957-71. Howe, though, was already 29 years old when an 18-year-old Hull debuted in the NHL in 1957.

As the years go on and if their careers develop as they should, Matthews and Laine should quietly push each other and play off each other, keeping their rivalry intact and their bond close, similar to what we've seen many times over in NHL history.

They didn't ask for any of this. Their birthdays and talent allowed for it. They can't skate away from it now, though. The link is real, the bond strong, and the NHL benefits.

"We always sort of go through these things," Gretzky said last week in Edmonton. "When Mario [Lemieux] retired and Mess [Mark Messier] retired, you sort of go, 'Who's going to take over?' And along came Crosby and Ovechkin and then you go, 'OK, how old are they getting and who's going to come along?'

"The game's always been in good shape, we just keep finding not only good hockey players, but really good people that come along every 10, 15 years. That's what always makes our game so special and so unique."

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