Matthews outplays McDavid in battle of NHL’s Cup-less best

Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews: Marquee Idols.

The Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly. Lennon to McCartney. Deathblow to Deadpool.

Put the points derby aside – and McDavid’s consensus anointing as the BIGGEST HOCKEY PLAYER ON THE PLANET CURRENTLY – and it really is 50 shades of grey… blue and white and orange, isn’t it? At that moment, the No. 1 draft pick of 2015 smashes it, The Connor Show is something to watch: Run Away by the Scoring Title, a one-man spectacle about a team that might make the playoffs or not.

Too bad he has the off-ice personality of a potted plant.

Also, an incredibly exceptional player, a generational hockey poker player, doesn’t necessarily do well against a phalanx of very, very good guys. Since Matthews is on an enviable roster for the Oilers, McDavid’s best pal Leon Draisaitl notwithstanding.

The #1 draft pick of 2016 has been a few ticks off his stride this campaign, far from repeating a trophy-laden 2021-22 season: Rocket Richard, Hart and Ted Lindsay (the hardware his peers voted) . Although he does have at least a hint of off-ice personality.

Over the years I suspect they’ll swap title feats season after season, Matthews and McDavid. And perhaps every player will ultimately be judged by who has their name engraved on a Stanley Cup — and how many times. Nobody came close.

McDavid, the nifty Transformers bot, has completely eclipsed the field with five weeks left in the regular season and is playing with dervish intent. Matthews – how quickly they forget – has caused a blizzard of trouble among the grumpies in Leaf Nation.

On Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena, the two studs faced off for only the 16th time of their NHL careers, the second meeting between Edmonton and Toronto in 11 days. Hottest ticket in town, in the league, and the Leafs prevailed 7-4, mostly after a wild second-half torment with four unanswered goals in six minutes from a 3-1 deficit.

“It’s always fun playing against great players and obviously he’s at the top of his game,” Matthews said afterwards, referring to his kind of double. “You have to be ready to play against a guy like him because he’s always there. I thought we did a decent job of limiting his time and space. But if you’re (that) type of player, you’re going to get looks, you’re going to get chances… But for the most part we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to keep him on the outside as much as possible.”

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A goal and two assists for McDavid, a goal and an assist for Matthews.

This Edmonton-Toronto slope to enjoy is highly entertaining and worthy of the glory of “Hockey Night in Canada” free skating. Because it won’t happen again this year — except in the unlikely scenario of a post-season clash. A stupid schedule between the two top Canadian teams.

At one point in the second period, Matthews and McDavid hit each other slightly and drew appropriate unsportsmanlike penalties. Not long after, they were practically spooning, McDavid lovingly patting Matthews on the butt.

Last time out, on March 1 in Edmonton, McDavid prevailed with the Leafs: he scored a pair, each in sparkling McDavid fashion, as Toronto limped 5-2 out of town. Matthews’ Leafs actually had a better record against McDavid’s Oilers (10-3-2) over the weekend, but McDavid had scored more points than Matthews in their mano-a-manos (seven goals and 15 assists).

Matthews appeared desperate to win the game from the opening faceoff, which he won against McDavid with two of Toronto’s first three shots for nearly two full minutes on the ice, including most of an early power play, even though it was the fourth Line that drew the first blood, Noel Acciari with his second as a leaf.

Edmonton’s third goal saw McDavid and Matthews wrestle for the puck in the Oilers end, but McDavid surfaced with it and got going, setting up Evander Kane for the all-around goal with a soft pass. Then it was McDavid who stormed out of the penalty box, melted the ice in from the red line, belted Jake McCabe and hit Matt Murray with five holes on the ice.

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Yet Matthews also had his fingers everywhere in the Leafs’ comeback, especially when John Tavares gave the Leafs a 4-3 lead – Matthews deftly lifted Darnell Nurse’s racquet and tricked him with a fake Deke like he was about to shoot rather than up hand out the captain . And on the power-play goal midway through the third: No. 30 of the season, seventh straight season at 30 or more.

Did we mention the eight shots plus two more blocked?

Great Toronto stickwork, pretty much everywhere, with goals resulting from turnovers, an unassisted marker by Mitch Marner and Marner stealing again to set up a wonderful wrister by William Nylander, his first goal in five games. The light shone brightest on Marner and Tavares: four points for the former, one goal and two assists for the latter.

so you see An excellent supporting cast for Matthews, although “assist” is a misnomer because Nylander has more goals and Marner has more points.

“I was trying to do a little bit of spinarama,” Marner explained of his steal-shoot goal. “But honestly I was a bit scared because it was going from post to post and I didn’t know if it would leak out.”

The Oilers also lost the fights.

Don’t believe for a minute the shrug McDavid previously offered over a circled date on the calendar as if it were just another away game ending a four-game away swing after an inspirational comeback win over the Bruins in Boston. The Newmarket phenomenon doesn’t often come this way and this was a remarkable occasion – for McDavid and his seven teammates who hail from GTA, led by the much missed Zach Hyman. But McDavid had largely shielded himself from the glare, so at the Oilers’ practice here Friday, team jerseys had been placed on the tunnel to the locker room to prevent autograph seekers from bothering No. 97.

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Wayne Gretzky always saved his best for commanding performances in Toronto. No doubt McDavid was just as spoiled.

The Leafs knew exactly where they went wrong at Rogers Place less than two weeks ago. Admonitions had been drummed into them at that morning’s meeting: Can’t give this McDavid guy space (though he regularly manages to make space out of thin air), watch your gaps (though he routinely maneuvers through them), ability of McDavid & co from getting through the neutral zone at a head at speed (although he routinely knocks forecheckers and D-men out of their pants with unparalleled acceleration).

Here’s the thing: In their own locker room, the Oilers were undoubtedly having the same conversations about Matthews…and Marner…and Nylander…and Tavares.

Footnote: It’s become customary to pay tribute to Jumbotron when ex-Leafs come through town with their new teams, way too buddy for my liking. Goalie Jack Campbell got the “Hail Fellow well met” treatment on Saturday. However, didn’t get a start and had a pretty lousy year between the whistles for Edmonton.

“You know I hold myself to a pretty high standard,” Campbell told reporters earlier in the day. “It just hasn’t gotten that far this year, but I’m working hard and I’m going to make it.

“It was pretty much the same story as the last few years when I had a little bottom. I’m just too hard on myself. To be able to let that go and just be free out there.”

Endlessly lovely, endlessly self-doubting Hamlet.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based sports and current affairs columnist for the star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimano


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