As the 2014-15 NHL season was winding down for the Buffalo Sabres, their fans took to cheering goals by the opposition.
With Buffalo 30th in the 30-team league, who could blame them? At stake was last place, and with it the best odds to win the draft lottery and the chance to pick Connor McDavid, considered by many to be a generational talent.
The Sabres, who went on to finish last and had a 20 per cent chance to win the lottery, lost out to Edmonton. The Oilers had an 11.5 per cent chance and for the fourth time in six years won the first pick in the draft, and chose McDavid at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., in June. Buffalo chose second and took fellow centre Jack Eichel, another perceived generational player, out of Boston University.
For the first time as professionals, the 19-year-olds will face each other Tuesday at First Niagara Center in Buffalo (7:30 p.m. ET). This time, it's McDavid and the Oilers in 29th place, four points behind the No. 26 Sabres.
'We're basically opposites. For us, personally, there's not much to it.' - Oilers' Connor McDavid on 1st NHL matchup vs. Sabres' Jack Eichel
"I think for both of us, it's just another game," McDavid, who will have family and some of his former junior teammates with the Ontario Hockey League's Erie (Pa.) Otters in attendance, told reporters Monday before boarding a plane for Buffalo.
"We don't share that much in common. I play in the West [conference], he plays in the East. I played junior, he went to school, so we're basically opposites. For us, personally, there's not much to it."
Still, it's a marquee matchup, despite the fact Eichel is third in NHL rookie scoring with 41 points and McDavid ninth with 29 (in 27 games), largely because he missed three months of action with a broken left collarbone.
Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma offered his take on the matchup after Tuesday's morning skate.
"It's two teams trying to get better and they'll both play hard," added Buffalo general manager Tim Murray, who was so hopeful of drafting McDavid that he scheduled an Otters regular-season game at First Niagara Center last October that drew a crowd of 14,000.
Besides the head-to-head matchup, McDavid and Eichel have their own reasons to be motivated Tuesday night.
McDavid, with points in five of his last seven games, will be trying to help his team win consecutive games for the first time since early February as the 23-34-7 Oilers begin a four-game road trip on the heels of a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders, their first in eight starts.
Last year's OHL and Canadian Hockey League player of the year was named the NHL's top rookie for February after recording five goals and 17 points in 14 games since returning from injury. Of the five goals, none were prettier than this effort against Columbus in his first game back.
Eichel is in a three-way tie for second on the Sabres with 17 goals and is second only to Ryan O'Reilly (49 points) with 41, but has seen his production stall the past month – one goal in 13 games – with O'Reilly out with a broken foot.
"I need to step up," Eichel told reporters following Saturday's 2-0 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles. "The coach [Bylsma] puts me in great situations with great players, on the power play and I have to start finishing. This starts with me."
Blessed with speed, skill and excellent vision, Eichel has also wowed crowds this season, in particular with a couple of no-look, behind-the-back passes to teammates.
After Tuesday, fans will have to wait until the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in September for McDavid and Eichel to share the same ice. They will be teammates on the Team North America Youngstars (23-and-under) squad coached by Oilers bench boss Todd McLellan.
"Both of those players are still in the developmental stage and trying to make their mark in a very good league," McLellan said. "Both have done a tremendous job. They're fun to watch. The fans are treated to some real good games by both of them and they will be for a long time."