NHL

National Hockey League: What We Learned from the First Connor McDavid- Auston Matthews Matchup


Written by: Tanner Henkel– Staff Writing Intern (@Thenkel)

Tuesday night marked the first time that the NHL’s two brightest young stars went head to head in an NHL game. Let’s break down who won round one of the NHL’s newest and youngest rivalry.

Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs played host to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, in the most hyped game of the young NHL season. But it was neither Matthews nor McDavid who stole the show on Tuesday. Instead it was two Toronto players that were almost forgotten in the media shuffle leading up to the game.

Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock hinted there would be “some matchups” pregame, and he wasn’t shy about the fact that his guys had to limit McDavid’s chances, but it became clear the matchup Babcock was referring to was an assignment for Leafs’ center Nazem Kadri to shadow McDavid throughout the game.

It took one minute and 29 seconds before Kadri tapped the puck past Oilers’ goalie Cam Talbot and opened the scoring. It was impossible to tell at this point, but Kadri had already won the night. Roughly sixty minutes later, Kadri would go on to score the overtime winner stripping McDavid of the puck in the Oiler zone and sliding it past a sprawling Talbot, securing the win for the Leafs.

 

Not only did Kadri get the best of McDavid on the score sheet, he eliminated McDavid as a scoring threat time and time again. Kadri shut down the budding Oilers’ superstar, through physicality. Which is McDavid’s only weakness as a player. Kadri was waiting for McDavid at every corner, repeatedly knocking him to the ice or running him into the boards after the whistle. Ethical or not, it worked. Kadri kept McDavid off the score sheet and handed him a -2 rating. But most importantly, Kadri made McDavid look human for the first time in his career.

The success of this matchup is a testament to Babcock’s coaching strategy. When faced with a daunting matchup he put a system in place that was highly effective in shutting down McDavid. He did this for years in Detroit with much success he’s just yet to see it work in Toronto. 

But it wasn’t just Kadri and Babcock that secured the win for the Leafs’. They needed a stellar performance from Goalie Frederik Andersen who made 44 saves en route to the win, four of which came directly off the stick of McDavid. Now Andersen wasn’t perfect, the two goals he allowed he should have stopped. The first came after a puck-handling gaff from Andersen, which allowed Oilers winger Anton Lander to bury the puck into an empty net. After that Andersen settled in and shut down the Oilers until the third period when a Darnell Nurse point shot with eyes for the net, whizzed over Andersen’s shoulder and tied the game at two. But you can’t really criticize him after getting the win, he’s just got more work to do.

Everything else aside, it’s encouraging to see Andersen recover after a couple bad goals, early in the season Andersen has looked like a goalie that can’t bounce back. But on Tuesday Andersen was reliable, bailing the Leafs’ out in a game they probably shouldn’t have won.

At the other end of the ice, it wasn’t a singular effort that kept Matthews off the score sheet, except maybe from Talbot who stopped all six of Matthews’ shots. These were high probability scoring chances as well; most of which were created from beautiful passes courtesy of line mate William Nylander, but Talbot shut the door every time.

 

Chances are if the Oilers won this game Matthews’ play would be under the microscope just as much as McDavid, but that didn’t happen. And despite the loss, Tuesday night proved the Oilers have come a long way defensively, handily shutting down Matthews.

 Judging by the media circus surrounding this game it will impossible for these two to avoid comparison throughout their careers. Tuesday was just the first taste, with round one ending in a… Draw.

Who do you think won the game within the game? Matthews or McDavid? Leave a comment or tweet me @thenkel

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