- The first meeting between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews got a ton of hype, but Nazem Kadri outshone both phenoms, beating McDavid on an OT winner for the Leafs.
TORONTO — In the end, Connor McDavid was indeed part of the story in his first game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. It just wasn’t for the reason you’d think.
Tuesday’s game between the Oilers and Maple Leafs was hyped, rather relentlessly, as the first matchup between the last two No. 1 overall picks: Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Predictions of a wide-open, high-scoring game didn’t come true. Instead, McDavid was contained effectively in and around the net by the Maple Leafs, most notably by Nazem Kadri. The former No. 7 overall pick was in McDavid’s face all night both in and after the play, cross checking him at will and looking more like a checking-line center than a scorer.
But on the final play of the game, Kadri contained McDavid and created offense at the same time. Kadri may not be the type of elite scorer that McDavid is, but his two-way play was the difference.
Just 12 seconds into overtime, Kadri evaded a close-checking McDavid on a breakaway and, with a McDavid-esque deke in close, gave the Maple Leafs a 3–2 win and two much needed points.
“I just tried to come back and get as much speed as I can and fake like I was going outside and came inside,” Kadri said after the game. “(Morgan Rielly) made a great pass and I just tried to get a touch on it and create a 50–50 puck. Just tried to get my body position right and get a step on [McDavid]. I don’t know if he tripped up there or what happened.”
Kadri also opened the scoring just a minute and a half into the opening frame. Matthews was on the ice for the draw in the offensive zone but was quickly pulled for Kadri. With a plus-2 rating and strong play on both sides of the puck, it might have been Kadri’s best game of the season. Matching Kadri against McDavid was what Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock wanted, and it produced the results he wanted as well.
McDavid was a minus-2 on the night with four shots and no points. He had opportunities, including blowing by a number of Maple Leafs on the wing, but he had very few looks in front of the net. Matthews, for his part, looked comfortable and confident and had two clean chances on the doorstep, but could not beat Oilers goalie Cam Talbot. He finished with six shots and a minus-1 rating.
In short, it was a former vaunted prospect who, at 26, is well beyond his years of promise and hype. Kadri was once lauded for his gifted offensive abilities but has evolved beyond a single-tooled player. And while so many in the hockey world tuned in Tuesday to see what a pair of the sport’s most dynamic young players could produce, a player who evidently still has a lot to offer his team was the one who stole the show.
“You’ve got to find that steady medium,” Kadri said of being a two-way player. “I like to score goals too. I like to put up points. Obviously my responsibility is to try and shut [opponents] down and make these players not want to play here.”
When it looked like Kadri’s most notable contribution to the game (besides the opening goal of course) would be the manner in which he got under McDavid’s skin and held him off the score sheet, he flipped the script.
Kadri himself has been in the trenches with these Maple Leafs. He’s lived through some dark days, including the never-forgotten Game 7 loss against the Boston Bruins in the 2013 playoffs, a handful of suspensions over the past two years and a number of losing seasons to boot.
The center has stayed with it as an NHL player and, under the tutelage of Mike Babcock, has become someone who makes things very difficult for the opposition.
So as much as everyone wanted to talk about McDavid and Matthews, let’s not forget about players like Kadri and their ability to evolve.
When asked if the infusion of young Maple Leafs talent and subsequent attention surrounding those players can serve as motivation for him to remind people of his talent, Kadri didn’t hold back.
“Of course,” he said with a smile. “I’m not here to be a role player. I want to help this team win and I want to do everything I can to help these guys win and in doing that, help the young kids pave the road and set a good example by doing things right and showing them what it takes to be a professional. All of those things I’ve embraced and as a team, we’ve done really well.”
After the game, Oilers Coach Todd McLellan voiced his frustration over Kadri’s play on the goal and what could have been interpreted as a hold on McDavid.
You can let your eyes be the judge on that play, but what isn’t up for debate is how effectively Kadri shut McDavid down all game.
“I never expected the guy would play that much,” Babcock said of McDavid after the game. McDavid logged an immense 8:07 in the first period and finished with 22:46 of ice time, leading all forwards by a landslide.
With increased ice time comes increased exposure and increased opportunities to learn as a player. There was no lack of exposure for McDavid as he played the team he cheered for as a child for the first time.
And for McDavid, it was just that: a learning experience. To learn from a player in Kadri who’s been there under the spotlight as a highly-touted rookie, who has been put through the ringer and emerged stronger on the other end.
No one might have been talking about Kadri before this game, but he’s trying to do everything in his power to remind the hockey world that he’s still here.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know what people were talking about before the game,” Kadri said. “I was just focused on my matchup and my assignment and doing whatever I could to help the team win.”