EDMONTON, Alberta — Over the next several seasons, there will be one overarching theme whenever the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs get together.
Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews.
McDavid and Matthews will face each other Thursday when Edmonton hosts Toronto.
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The golden prize of the 2015 draft lottery against the golden prize of the 2016 draft lottery. McDavid, the previous season’s MVP, vs. Matthews, the previous season’s rookie of the year. Last season, both players led their respective teams to playoff berths, bringing their franchises out of long post-season droughts.
For a generation of hockey fans, McDavid vs. Matthews will be an ever-evolving debate.
This season, McDavid has the edge in points, 30 to 24. But Matthews’s Leafs (16-9-1) are enjoying a far better season than McDavid’s Oilers (10-13-2).
Both players will be looking to get on the scoresheet after not having vintage games Tuesday. While their teams both won their respective matchups, McDavid was held without a point, while Matthews, for the first time in his career, didn’t register a shot on goal.
“He’s obviously a real good player, he’s got a great shot, I think one of the best in the league just in terms of how fast he can get it off and accuracy,” McDavid said of Matthews after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s a real special player.”
“Obviously, he can skate,” Matthews said of McDavid. “I think he changes speeds better than anybody in the game. Just his hockey IQ, just a mix of everything he can do at a high pace, is obviously what sets him apart from everybody else.”
McDavid knows that the comparisons will come every time the two young superstars face each other. And he knows it’s worse for Matthews, who plays in Toronto, the world’s media hub when it comes to hockey.
“Honestly, I try not to pay attention to the media stuff and all that,” McDavid said. “But he seems to be handling it well. I don’t watch interviews and all that, but you don’t really hear anything bad about him or saying anything wrong.”
Like many star players, Matthews tried to downplay the showdown.
“It’s just another game,” he said. “You don’t really get too worked up about the whole match-up, individual match-ups, that the media likes to make. It’s just another hockey game, two teams going at each other. Obviously, they’ve got a lot of speed and skill and so do we. Usually that makes for a pretty exciting game, right.”
Oilers coach Todd McLellan was behind the bench for the Team North America squad that competed at 2016’s World Cup of Hockey, and had McDavid and Matthews as teammates.
“It was an honor to coach both of them at the same time,” McLellan said. “Remarkable athletes, and what I would say about both of them is that their competitive spirit, their fire to be elite is exceptional.”
McLellan said that when he had Matthews on the Team North America squad, he started camp as the extra forward. By the time the tournament started, Matthews was on the top line with McDavid.
The offensive contrasts between the team are stark.
The Oilers have only 67 goals in 25 games. The Leafs lead the league with 92 goals in 26 contests.
When Matthews recently missed four games to injury, the Leafs went 4-0-0 during that run. Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk each have 12 goals on the season, which ties them for the team lead with Matthews.
“We always have entertaining games with them, anyway, which will be a lot of fun,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “They got a lot of talent so we’ve got to do a good job and be prepared to play.”
The Oilers are looking for their third win in a row. The team’s current two-game win streak matches their longest victory run of the season; that’s a sign of how inconsistent the team has been this season.
Edmonton will have to do it without goaltender Cam Talbot, who was placed on injured reserve on Thursday morning. McLellan said Talbot, who has played in 22 of the Oilers 25 games this season, tweaked something in his upper body.
Backup Laurent Brossoit will be the likely starter for Edmonton, which recalled fellow goaltender Nick Ellis from Bakersfield of the American Hockey League. Ellis, 23, has posted a 5-5-1 mark with one shutout, a 2.82 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 11 games this season with the Condors.
Rogers Place won’t be as hospitable for the home team as it usually is. Whenever the Leafs go on the road in Canada, their legion of fans across the country snap up tickets or buy ducats from their friends. There will be many blue Leafs shirts breaking up the wall of orange in the stands.
As of Wednesday, the cheapest tickets on the secondary market near the top of the arena were being sold for $128 US each. Compare that to Tuesday’s game against Arizona, where you could have found tickets for less than $40 apiece.