DETROIT -- Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, Dylan Larkin and Buffalo's Jack Eichel made it clear that tonight's game is not Larkin versus Eichel, it's the Wings versus the Sabres.
Having said that, it is the first opportunity for fans to see the two former U.S. National Development Team Program players play against one another rather than with each other.
"What I like about it from my perspective is I like the fact that they’re both U.S. guys," Blashill said. "I don’t say that with any disrespect to any other country, but ultimately when we get to world competitions I like cheering for the U.S. I’m a U.S. guy, I like coaching U.S. teams, I like being around that. I like that they’re both U.S. guys. I think it’s great for the game in the U.S. especially."
Asked point-blank which player is the better of the two, Larkin did not mince words.
"He's better," Larkin said.
Larkin said the two never competed against each other when they were kids.
"I always heard about how good a player he was," Larkin said. "He always played up so I never got the chance to play against him. It's pretty cool, just being friends with him now and we competed every day at the NTDP, we always battled in practice. But we shared a laugh off the ice together always and hung out. To be at the highest level in our first year together, it's pretty cool."
The fact is that both 19-year-olds are now playing at the highest level in their sport.
"Just three years ago we were 16-year-olds at the NDTP and now we're playing at the highest level and playing against each other," Larkin said. "It's a cool thing."
Larkin talked about his first eye-opening moment in playing with Eichel in their first exhibition game as teammates at 17.
"There was a lot of hype obviously and I was like, all right, let's see," Larkin said. "First shift he scored. Then they dropped the puck and he went down and scored again. I think he ended up having three or four goals that night. It was pretty cool."
Eichel said Larkin stood out to him as well.
"His skating. He was a fast, powerful skater," Eichel said. "He skates around guys with ease, that’s what stands out to me."
Larkin leads the Wings with 10 goals and his 18 points are second only to captain Henrik Zetterberg.
"I’ve been following him, obviously he’s a good friend of mine, so he’s having a great year," Eichel said. "I’m not surprised at all. You see how good of a shot he has and how fast he is, how he can make plays at top speed. You guys will all get used to this. I’ve seen it for years now, so I’m not surprised."
Eichel is tied for his team's lead in goals with eight and his 12 points are third on the Sabres behind Ryan O'Reilly's 19 and Rasmus Ristolainen's 14.
"For sure I think we have to watch him," Larkin said. "I think a lot of guys on our team probably seeing him for the first time have to respect his speed for the rest of the game. It’s a huge two points for both teams. They’re in the hunt for a playoff spot, and so are we. Personally, I think it’ll be cool to see him out there."
Eichel said the individual matchup with Larkin would be fun but he's concerned more with the big picture.
"Two rookies that came from similar paths, at the NDTP together, played together, went to college, went to the World Championships together, good friends," Eichel said. "It should be a good test for us as a team against the Red Wings. We need this game tonight, trying to build momentum off our last two wins."
LARKIN ON PK, BUT NOT YET: Blashill said after Monday's practice that Larkin would start working on the penalty kill.
But that doesn't mean he'll be out there on the PK against Buffalo.
"When he’s always on the PP he doesn’t get any reps in practice on the PK, so that’s a beginning of the process to get some reps in practice," Blashill said. "The one thing I think is important to make clear is we’ve got guys on the penalty kill that have done an unbelievable job. I think we’re ranked fourth in the penalty kill. You only have that type of ranking if you have great penalty killers so (Luke) Glendening, (Drew) Miller, (Darren) Helm, and (Riley) Sheahan have been the majority of the guys doing it lately; (Joakim) Andersson before that. They are elite, elite penalty killers. So Dylan Larkin is in the process of learning how to do that. It takes time and then he’s got to grab one of those guys’ jobs and say I can do it just as well, if not better. So that’s gonna take time for sure. Really happy with the job that our guys on the penalty kill have done so far."
Glendening expects that Larkin will fit right in when he does get a chance to kill penalties during a game.
"He’s a smart player, he knows where to be, his speed is obviously exceptional," Glendening said. "He’ll be able to make up for the mistakes he makes. Our PK is aggressive, so I think it’ll fit his style pretty good."
Larkin said he's done penalty killing at the NTDP and at the world junior championship and world championship tournaments.
When he does get his opportunity, Larkin knows what he has to do.
"Just try and use my speed, maybe get a few breakaways," Larkin said. "Just try and use my speed to create pressure."