The first and second overall picks from the 2015 draft both played coy earlier in the day when asked about the matchup. Each said it wasn't a big deal. The hype is media-driven. It's not player versus player; it's the Oilers against the Sabres. That mentality works for the pair of 19-year-olds, but whether they want to believe it or not, their connection is crucial to the success of the league.
This season is about more than just one game. Both teams are at or near the bottom of their conference standings. McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone, while Eichel's development in the NHL has been a bit smoother.
"We just want to play hockey and go about our business," Eichel said.
Both players are surrounded by seasoned veterans who can help ease the transition, both on and off the ice. McDavid lives with Taylor Hall. Eichel lives with Matt Moulson. Coaching staffs on both teams have done a solid job putting both players in a position to succeed and develop their games.
"[McDavid] gets it. He gets that it's more of what [the media] creates than anything, to be honest," Hall said. "Sure, there's maybe a bit of a rivalry. They both wanted to go first last year, I'm sure, and there's always going to be that connection, but I think it's more of a hockey game than it is a battle between two young guys."
It's not like this Eichel-McDavid connection is unique.
Even though Alex Ovechkin (2004) and Sidney Crosby (2005) were drafted a year apart, that matchup has captivated hockey fans since they both entered the league in the 2005-06 season, a year after the lockout. In 2010, the hockey world watched when Hall and Tyler Seguin went first and second overall in the draft, respectively. Leading up to that draft, everyone wondered if the Oilers would pick Hall or Seguin. After Edmonton took Hall, the Boston Bruins selected Seguin. Even though Seguin was traded to the Dallas Stars after the 2013 season (mostly due to his immaturity on and off the ice), every time he and Hall play each other the hype of Taylor versus Tyler resumes.
Their relationship has grown over the years. They've played on All-Star teams and competed in world championships.
"We've gotten to know each other a lot better than we did when we were 18," Hall said. "We're friends now and we can certainly joke around about stuff and just think about how [the media] made more of a deal of it than it was. [Eichel and McDavid] are pretty young and this is their first matchup against each other, so it's a little bit awkward in that sense, but as you get older it doesn't matter as much."
The first time Hall and Seguin played against each other in the NHL was on Feb. 27, 2011, in Edmonton. The Bruins won that game 3-2 and neither player registered a point.
Hall remembers the first matchup wasn't a big deal. He was getting more playing time on a young and rebuilding Oiler team, while Seguin was a part of an already established team in Boston that would go on to win the Stanley Cup in his rookie season. That still haunts Hall.
"When Tyler won the Stanley Cup, I've got to admit, that was a little tough because we finished, I think, dead last that year and they won the Stanley Cup," Hall said. "It was very different seasons for us. Individually, I had a pretty good year, but winning the Stanley Cup, and that's what everyone dreams of and he was able to do it in his first year, so definitely a little bit jealous on that one."
Whether he's talking about competing against Seguin, or the Eichel-McDavid matchup, it's common to hear Hall describe the so-called hype as media-driven. He will also admit it's easy to get motivated in such a situation.
"Tyler would say the same thing: You want to play well. You still want to prove your worth, and I'm proud that Edmonton drafted me and I'm very happy that I get to play in such a passionate city, a great team historically," Hall said. "You're proud of what you've accomplished and you want to show what you can do."
Every situation is different. It's difficult to compare the impact Crosby and Ovechkin have had on the game, with the performances of Hall and Seguin, and now with rookies Eichel and McDavid. As Hall explained, he and Seguin weren't in the same stratosphere as Eichel and McDavid.
"He's had a lot of expectations, and to his credit, he's blown them out of the water," Hall said of McDavid. "It's fun to see a kid like that come in and just go play hockey, and that's what he's been able to do."
Boston University men's hockey coach David Quinn is proud of how his former player, Eichel, has adapted to the NHL.
"He's done a great job," Quinn said. "It's a very difficult league for a 19-year-old to play in. I don't care how talented you are and the challenges aren't the talent, the challenges are being a pro and doing it every day and the grind of the season, the maturity aspect of things. Jack's done a great job handling it. He's been a go-to guy from the get-go there, which is something he's used to, but it's different at that level. It's been amazing to watch how well he's handled the physical aspect of it and he's shown everybody why he was highly touted and a world-class player for a long time."
From a pure hockey standpoint, there's more to this season's rookie class than Eichel and McDavid. McDavid's injury earlier this season basically took him out of the Calder Trophy race. Other freshman-class members have been impressive, too. The Detroit Red Wings' Dylan Larkin, Chicago Blackhawks' Artemi Panarin, Philadelphia Flyers' Shayne Gostisbehere and Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson are the others in serious consideration for the Calder.
Crosby, one of the best players in the world, is thrilled with the impact those players have had on the game this season, especially Eichel and McDavid.
"They look unbelievable," said Crosby. "When there are a lot of expectations, I can certainly relate to that, you want to see guys do well. You want to see them come in and meet those expectations for themselves, just to be comfortable.
"It makes things a lot easier when you come in and feel comfortable. You feel confident and to see them both doing well, you've got Larkin in Detroit, there's a whole group of guys that really have come on here, stepped in and look great. I'm sure [Eichel-McDavid] isn't going to be too vicious of a rivalry, they don't see each other that much, but I think it'll be fun for them to go head-to-head."
"For me, I think it's made up. I really do," Bylsma said of the hype. "I saw that in the Pittsburgh-Washington situation. It comes to fruition more when you have a playoff matchup. Certainly, the hype around the '09 series between Pittsburgh and Washington was unlike anything I've ever seen and it was because of the playoff situation. I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't curious to watch Jack and Connor play and see them play against each other."
Oilers coach Todd McLellan understands that both the Edmonton and Buffalo organizations are rebuilding. He described it as digging the hole and pouring the basement. Even though both teams are struggling, the coach believes the future looks bright.
"First of all, they are two fabulous players," McLellan said of McDavid and Eichel. "We're very lucky to have them on our teams. We're very lucky to have them in our league and the fans are lucky to watch them on a nightly basis because they're gifted. They're skilled. They are the future of our game."
As big fans of hockey, Eichel and McDavid follow all the action around the league, not just what the other is doing.
"He's had a great year," McDavid said. "It's good to see and it's good for the league. All the young guys are playing well. I know him on a very basic level just from the whole draft process and all that."
Last month, McDavid made an honest comment when he said the two would have to figure out a way to become a little closer since they will be teammates for Team North America at next September's World Cup.
"I don't have a bad relationship with him at all," Eichel said. "We have kind of a small one. We got to know each other a little bit. We had some good times and good experiences. I really don't think anybody for this World Cup team that's played against each other and is competitive against each other is going to have a problem coming together.
"It'll be fun. It'll be a good opportunity to get a chance to play with him. The media always has us pegged as ... being rivals, but we really just don't know each other. It'll be a good chance to get to play with him."
At some point, March 1, 2016, will be the answer to this trivia question: What was the date of the first NHL game between Eichel and McDavid?
These regular-season games over the course of their respective careers won't dictate their success. It's how they perform on hockey's biggest stage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. How far they take their teams in the postseason and if they help win a championship. That's when they can truly be considered generational players.
"That's where legends are made," Hall said.