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|Posted: Wed Nov 2nd, 2016 12:09 am||
|Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews can downplay it all they want, but their first career NHL showdown carries plenty of swagger with it.
The two 19-year-olds were linemates for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in September, so you'd better believe there will be plenty of pride on the line when the last two first-overall draft picks go head to head on Tuesday night as McDavid's Edmonton Oilers meet Matthews' Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.
"Oh, 100 percent there will be,'' their World Cup linemate, Mark Scheifele, told ESPN.com on Saturday. "You could even tell what happened with Patrik Laine and Matthews when they played. You see them both downplay it -- 'It's just a regular hockey game' -- but at the end of the day, both of them want to prove to everyone that they're the big shot. Obviously it's not the No. 1 thing on their mind, but all pro athletes have that extra gear. They want to be that clutch player who comes through in the crunch. There will be more on the line for them Tuesday.''
Scheifele seems to be in the middle of it all these days. He rode shotgun with Matthews and McDavid on Team North America and now has the sensational Finnish rookie Laine on his wing in Winnipeg.
"I've played with all of them. I've got the dirt on all of them,'' joked the talented Winnipeg Jets center during a phone conversation.
"It is a weird feeling. I'm 23 years old, and I feel like I have to take care of the kids,'' Scheifele added with a laugh.
Laine, 18, electrified the Winnipeg crowd with a hat trick in that Oct. 19 win over Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs -- the opening NHL chapter in what will be a forever debate between the top two picks of last June's draft. The Calder Trophy likely will have one of their names engraved on it next June.
The McDavid-Matthews narrative will also continue to have juice. Both are franchise centers for whom organizations tried to move mountains, just for the chance to land them in the lottery. The Leafs fell short of doing so in the spring of 2015 and lost out on McDavid before hitting the jackpot last spring to claim the top draft spot and the right to choose Matthews. So it's understandable that the two players will always be compared with one another.
Scheifele showed his own moxie by meshing very well with both franchise players in September.
"Connor can pretty much do it all. He can score, he can set guys up, he's got unbelievable speed, he plays good D in the D-zone," Scheifele said. "Auston is a great guy down low, holds on to the puck really well. He's a very methodical player. I'm a pretty simple guy. I get pucks in, I hold the puck down low, I get to open areas and try to be a consistent player every night. I think that's why I was able to play with those guys because they knew what they were getting out of me each and every night. With guys of that skill level, it makes it easy to find open hole, you're going to get chances. It was really exciting to play to play with those two guys.''
At one point last week, Matthews' 10 points led the NHL in scoring. He has gone three consecutive games since then without a point, but you know that's not going to last. Now McDavid has taken the NHL scoring lead, with 12 points in nine games (he's tied with Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers).
"The most exciting to me is just how much better they get every single night," Scheifele said of McDavid and Matthews. "They're pretty special, but they're getting better every night, which is the scary thing.''
Scheifele faced McDavid in the Heritage Classic on Oct. 23, so he has already played against both of his World Cup linemates.
"I gave Connor a cross-check after one draw, because he beat me. He skated by me and said, 'Scheif, that hurt,''' chuckled Scheifele, who knows McDavid well, as they both work out together during the summer in the Toronto area. "I only took one or two draws against Auston. I didn't get to play against him as much. But they were both awesome to play against. You watch the skill level, it's pretty crazy just to see what they're doing now.''
Scheifele figured those McDavid-Matthews draws on Tuesday night will be entertaining.
"I'm sure they'll be ribbing each other at some faceoffs," Scheifele said. "It'll be a fun game to watch for sure.''
It has been that kind of early season for the NHL, as the next wave of generational stars -- McDavid, Matthews, Laine, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin et al. -- puts its stamp on the game. It's a heady time for franchise-altering youth in the NHL.
"It's crazy the amount of young guys coming into the league doing unbelievable things," said Scheifele, who is playing in his fourth NHL season. "It just shows where the game of hockey is going. I know Connor works on his game more than anyone. He's the guy shooting pucks at his house, on the ice doing extra things, working on faceoffs, whatever it is, he's a guy trying to get better and better each and every day. That's what makes all these young kids so special. They all want to get better. They don't care about the fact they made the NHL already. They want to be the best player. They want to be that next Sidney Crosby.
"I think that's why these kids are all making those waves.''