TORONTO - Jack Eichel has had plenty of time over the years to get to know Auston Matthews, from their time together at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., to playing as teammates on the international stage at the World Junior Championship and, most recently, at the World Cup of Hockey in September.
The two young players will meet again on Tuesday, not as teammates but as opponents in a budding rivalry. Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres trail Matthews and the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs by five points in the Atlantic Division standings, and their game at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday is the first of four remaining head-to-head matchups this season.
Video: Preview: BUF @ TOR (1/17/17)
"Last year we played each other a couple times at the end of the year when we were both out of the playoffs," Eichel said. "Usually the atmosphere's going and obviously the fans get into it and the teams don't really like each other so it's a hard-fought battle, usually pretty tight checking, tight score, so just looking for another test on the road and a good one for us."
The Maple Leafs have excelled in their first season with Matthews, who leads the team with 21 goals and 37 points as a rookie. They're 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, a stretch that has propelled them to third place in the division with 48 points through 41 games.
"You can hear the excitement across the border with where they're at," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think if you look at where our division is at with a group of people between 48 and where we're at (the Sabres have 43 points), that's kind of what I expected from pretty much every one of us in our division.
"The Leafs have had some success, they're winning hockey games and they put themselves at the top of that group of people in the 48-point range but it's not a surprise to see five, six teams in that area all fighting for points and position."
Beyond Matthews, the Maple Leafs rely on a young core that allows them to play a fast brand of hockey. Mitch Marner, another rookie, is tied for second on the team with 35 points (10+25) while William Nylander has 28 points (9+19) in his first full season.
Video: EICHEL: Pregame Interview at TOR
Their style is similar to that of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who the Sabres have struggled against twice this season, but also to the Dallas Stars team that Buffalo beat 4-1 on Monday. Those teams looked to stretch the ice and create a fast-paced, up-and-down style of game.
"We're going to see that again tonight with this Toronto team," Bylsma said. "It's something we have to make an adjustment to with how we play against this group, minimizing their speed, minimizing how they play a long transition game."
The Sabres and Maple Leafs have met once this season, in Buffalo on Nov. 3, when Eichel was still working his way back from the high-ankle sprain that delayed the start of his season. Toronto won that game 2-1 thanks to an outstanding night in net by Frederik Andersen, who's expected to start again Tuesday, but Buffalo outshot the Maple Leafs 43-29.
Bylsma said it was the two preseason games the Sabres played against Toronto in October that laid down the template for how to slow the young Maple Leafs down.
"In exhibition in particular they gave us a ton to handle with how aggressive they were and I think in the game we played them we saw we were able to break some of that aggressiveness with how they play defensively and had some opportunities in the offensive zone by getting are D available, moving our D to the middle of the ice," Bylsma said. "That's where a lot of our shots were generated from in that game."
Robin Lehner will make his second start in net in as many days for the Sabres, coming off of a 31-save performance against the Stars on Monday.
Coverage on Tuesday begins at 7 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Maple Leafs at 7:30.
63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 19 Cal O'Reilly - 26 Matt Moulson
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
47 Zach Bogosian - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson