Surrounded by an abnormally large group of media, Jack Eichel had one message he wanted to convey on Tuesday morning: the game tonight at First Niagara Center is between the Buffalo Sabres and the Edmonton Oilers, not between him and Connor McDavid.
McDavid and Eichel, the respective top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, will meet for the first time in their professional careers on Tuesday, an undeniably exciting matchup for spectators given the talent both players have displayed in their rookie seasons.
For Eichel, however, the game will be special simply because it's the next one on the schedule.
"I think I kind of take every game just as important as the last," he said after Buffalo's morning skate. "Inside the room, you don’t really look at it like [one player versus another]. It's a team game; there are five guys and a goalie. It's a lot more than two people playing against each other."
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma knows a thing or two about player rivalries – or at least perceived player rivalries – having been coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the height of the hype surrounding each and every game between Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin.
"These two young guys are just rookies in the League playing their first games really and it's clearly not to that point," Bylsma said. "Their circumstances I think put them head-to-head, their draft status and how good they are put them in that category, but for me I think it's made up, I really do."
They may not have the resume of Crosby and Ovechkin, but both Eichel and McDavid are off to pretty good starts at age 19. Eichel is second on the Sabres and third among rookies with 41 points (17+24) while McDavid has 29 points (10+19) despite playing in only 27 games due to a broken collarbone.
McDavid has scored 17 of those points (5+12) since returning from that injury on Feb. 2, earning him Rookie of the Month honors. Since that return, however, the Oilers are just 4-8-2. With 53 points, they rank last in the Western Conference.
"It's definitely not fun but it's all part of the process," McDavid said. "I went through it [in juniors] in Erie, those last two years were so worth the year struggle that we had there. That's what I'm trying to look at it as, I think we've been sticking with the process and are trying to get better each and every game."
In that sense, both players are in similar situations: going through the process of developing on young, talented teams. As for either player feeling they have anything to prove, Eichel said he believes both are happy with how the chips fell at the draft in June.
"I'm happy in Buffalo," he said. "It's a pretty good place to be playing right now and it's a pretty good organization and a great city to be a part of. Like I said earlier, I think you want to be the best at everything you do but everything happens for a reason."
Robin Lehner will start in net for Buffalo against Edmonton. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
EICHEL REACTS TO McGINN TRADE
Eichel had a chance to see Jamie McGinn before he departed for Anaheim on Monday. The Sabres received a conditional third-round pick prior to the Trade Deadline for McGinn, who will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
McGinn became a popular figure in the Sabres' dressing room during his half-season in Buffalo, but he and Eichel developed a particularly close friendship. While it was hard to see his friend leave, Eichel said he was happy knowing McGinn will have the chance to succeed with the Ducks, the hottest team in the Western Conference.
"I got to know Jamie really well," Eichel said. "He's definitely going to be missed. It's tough to see him go, just the attitude he brought to the rink every day, bringing a smile and going to work. He's a guy that puts his head down and knows what he has to do and he was a good friend of mine so it's tough to see him as I go but he's going to a pretty good team and a team in a real good situation so I'm happy for him."
In a move needed to be made in order for both players to be eligible for the Rochester Americans' playoff roster this season, forwards Cal O'Reilly and Justin Bailey were reassigned to the Amerks on Monday. O'Reilly was recalled later in the day, while Bailey remains in Rochester due to the recall of forward Daniel Catenacci.
Catenacci, 22, played three games for the Sabres in February but was injured on a controversial high hit from Philadelphia's Radko Gudas. He was sent back to Rochester after rehabilitating from his upper-body injury.
"The first thing I wanted to do when I went back down to Rochester was play a strong game and get another opportunity to come back," he said. "I just concentrated on working hard, playing a full 200-foot game down there. Thankfully I thought I did pretty well and I'm back and I'm pretty happy."
McDAVID HAS CONNECTIONS TO BUFFALO
The Oilers rookie said that he and Eichel haven’t gotten a chance to know each other; that chance will likely come when they're teammates for Team North America in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, provided both make the cut when rosters are announced on Wednesday.
He does, however, have connections up-and-down the Sabres lineup. He's skated with fellow former Erie Otters Ryan O'Reilly and Carlo Colaiacovo in the past and he grew up down the street from Catenacci, who played hockey with his older brother Cameron.
He became good friends with Sam Reinhart when the two roomed together at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in 2013, where they won gold for Team Canada.
In fact, given the city's proximity to Erie, Penn. and his hometown of Richmond Hill, Ont. – both are less than two hours away – McDavid even has a familiarity with the city of Buffalo itself.
"Playing in Erie I was pretty close so I'd come down a couple times," he said. "It definitely feels like a second home here with it being so close to Toronto so I'm excited."
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
43 Daniel Catenacci – 19 Cal O'Reilly – 28 Zemgus Girgensons
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad JohnsonPower Plays:
Kane – Eichel – Reinhart – Girgensons – Bogosian
Moulson – O'Reilly – Gionta - Pysyk – Ristolainen