The 2016 IIHF World Championship started with the most anticipated match-up, according to North American fans. Not only was it Canada against the USA, but the game featured the senior men’s national team debuts of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews – the No. 1 overall draft pick last season and the presumptive No. 1 pick this year.
It was McDavid that came out on top of a 5–1 score, but that’s due to Canada’s much deeper and more experienced roster rather than a commentary on the two featured individuals.
Individually, both centers were the top faceoff men for their respective teams – Matthews was 9-for-14, including a perfect 5-for-5 in the second period. Neither player recorded a point in the game and only Matthews was even on the ice for a goal – that being Brad Marchand’s shorthanded marker after the outcome had long since been settled. It was that outcome that Matthews and McDavid were most concerned with after.
“Of course it’s frustrating,” Matthews said about the negative result. “You never like to lose and we’d like to play a better game against a team like that – one you know will probably be fighting for a medal – because that’s where we want to be. But we know that it’s just the first game and we can play better.”
And of course, McDavid’s thoughts were about the win and what it means down the road.
“It’s nice to win it. That’s the main thing. It was nothing special from my part, but you just have to look around and see the talent here. This team won the gold medal last year and that’s our goal this year. Nobody has to go out and try to do too much but if we all put in a good effort we can be successful.”
For both players, their first-ever game in the World Championship meant some adjustment. For McDavid, re-adjusting to the big international-sized ice, where he plays infrequently, and for Matthews, adjusting to a North American opponent after a year in Europe.
“The NHL’s the best league in the world and that’s where most of those guys play, so the game was a bit faster and it forced me to elevate my game,” Matthews said about facing Team Canada. And while he may be used to the big ice, when asked about re-adjusting to the narrower rink when he returns to North America next season, he answered, “Yeah for sure, it’s gonna be smaller ice and more physical play. I’ll have to be ready for it.”
McDavid seems less concerned about going back and forth between the two.
“Yeah it’s always a bit of an adjustment, but we’ve all done this before [played international hockey on the bigger ice]. We’ve just got to use that space to our advantage and that’s gonna be a challenge against some of the speedy European teams, but there are other factors involved and we’ve won in Europe before.”
With a year of playing in the NHL, McDavid was certainly the more “known” entity of the two. Add to that the speculation around the upcoming NHL Draft, and McDavid even hinted that this might be the first time that the spotlight wasn’t on him. Matthews, however, dismissed the idea of feeling any pressure.
“I try not to pay attention to that too much. I came over here to try to win a medal, to play for my country and do what I have to do to help us win hockey games.”
Still, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, the general manager and head coach of the team that owns the No. 1 pick, were both in attendance on a day where they could watch Matthews and Finland’s Patrik Laine play in back-to-back games. Later on in the group stage, it will surely be another media circus when the Americans face Finland and the two go head-to-head.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs are surely interested to see how he handles himself playing against NHL-caliber opposition for the first time, Matthews says he hasn’t spoken to anybody from the organization personally.
“No, I haven’t talked to anybody,” he said. “For me this trip is about focusing on playing hockey, not about who’s watching me.”
He did, however, acknowledge that he was thinking a little bit about the World Cup of Hockey this September – a situation that would allow him play on the same team as McDavid if chosen.
“I guess so,” he answered when asked if this could be seen as an audition for a spot on the team with Team North America general manager Peter Chiarelli watching. “Obviously, it would be a great honor if I’m chosen to play there. I’m just trying to round out my game so I’m better in all facets, and if I do that and I get chosen, great, but if it doesn’t happen I’ll move on.”
And when reminded that everyone will continue making comparisons between the two, he concluded by saying, “That may be – Connor’s a great player and good on him. But this is a team game and as I’ve been saying all along, all I want to do is help this team.”
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