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Stars Aligned: McDavid and Matthews Set, and Keep, the Pace

Edmonton’s Connor McDavid leads the N.H.L. in points, and Toronto’s Auston Matthews has the most goals. The two will play three consecutive games against each other starting Saturday.

TORONTO — Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have seemed to answer each other’s accomplishments all season.

McDavid, 24, a center for the Edmonton Oilers, had 37 points in his first 20 games, the most in such a stretch since Mario Lemieux’s total almost 20 years ago. Last week, McDavid scored his 500th career point, tying Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby as the eighth-fastest player to reach the milestone.

Three days later, Matthews, 23, a center for the Toronto Maple Leafs, had his second consecutive game with two goals and two assists.

McDavid countered hours later with three goals and his second five-point game of this season.

McDavid is on pace to surpass 100 points and Matthews could reach 50 goals, which would be jaw-dropping numbers in an abbreviated, 56-game season.

The gaudy offensive production from players in their early 20s is reminiscent of Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and some have even dropped Wayne Gretzky into their comparisons.

“It’s like Gretzky and Lemieux, in my view,” Craig Button, a former N.H.L. general manager who is now TSN’s director of scouting, said in a telephone interview. “They challenged each other back and forth with their brilliance.”

But it’s not quite like Gretzky and Lemieux: their duel was diminished because they played in different divisions and countries, with Gretzky in Edmonton and Lemieux in Pittsburgh. They also peaked at different times, as Gretzky made his debut five seasons before Lemieux. They met only 25 times and never in the playoffs, according to Randy Robles of Elias Sports Bureau.

Not so with Matthews and McDavid. They have already had 10 head-to-head meetings in the last five years. And more is to come. Because of divisional realignment necessitated by pandemic-related travel restrictions, their teams will play each other nine times this season, including three consecutive games starting on Saturday. The series is tied at two and Toronto and Edmonton occupy the top two spots in the all-Canadian North Division.

The made-in-Canada spectacle is fueling debates about who is more likely to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player and is being embraced throughout the country. Sportsnet has reported that Maple Leafs viewership is up 15 percent year over year and the Oilers’ has increased by 28 percent.

“To have this in Canada like this, with the best goal-scorer and the most electrifying player in the league going at it nine times, this is special,” Button said, “and there’s a real possibility for Edmonton and Toronto to play in the playoffs.”

Similar to Crosby and Ovechkin, who broke into the league in 2005-06, McDavid and Matthews, the No. 1 draft picks in 2015 and 2016, are giving fans the luxury of watching them develop at the same time.

In the N.H.L.’s scoring race, McDavid is No. 1 and Matthews No. 3. In the goals race, Matthews is No. 1 and McDavid No. 2.

Injuries, of course, are the great unknown, and there is some concern going into the three-game series that their competition may be put on hold due to a wrist injury that Matthews aggravated against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.

Matthews, who missed a game earlier this season against Edmonton with an injury, did not practice on Friday and is listed as a game-time decision Saturday. Matthews has been dealing with the injury “virtually all season,” his coach, Sheldon Keefe, said. Even still, Matthews contributed two assists in the 2-1 overtime victory over Calgary.

Toronto fans have been waiting a long time for a talent like Matthews. The last Maple Leaf to lead the league in goals was Gaye Stewart in 1945-46, and the last Maple Leaf to lead the N.H.L. in scoring was Gordie Drillon in 1937-38.

“He’s picking goalies apart,” William Nylander, a Maple Leafs wing, said of Matthews. “And he’s doing it consistently.”

On Wednesday, Matthews became just the third player in Maple Leafs franchise history to record a point in at least 18 of his first 20 games of a season.

“It’s hard to even call them hot streaks anymore because it just seems like he’s hot all the time,” Toronto center Alex Kerfoot said in a news conference.

Auston Matthews leads the league with 18 goals and is on pace to surpass the 47 he scored in 70 games last season.
Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

While Matthews’s defining skill is his shot, McDavid’s is his speed. Ray Ferraro, a former player who is a TSN analyst, regards him as the best skater in N.H.L. history.

“There are just some nights where the puck seems to follow him around,” Oilers Coach Dave Tippett said in a news conference.

Of course, McDavid and Matthews don’t work alone. McDavid is on the same line as Leon Draisaitl, who was last season’s scoring champion and M.V.P., and Matthews is supported by linemate Mitch Marner. The four players are in the top five in scoring.

Despite the competition between hockey stars, there is a history — from the 1980s to Matthews and McDavid — of them working together to improve their games.

Gretzky showed Lemieux by example what was possible for his career when the two teamed up to defeat the Soviet Union in the three-game final of the 1987 Canada Cup. Until then, Lemieux had been seen as a gifted, but lackadaisical player. But his career took off after that.

“He came back a different guy and more motivated,” the broadcaster Craig Simpson, who was teammates with both players, said in a telephone interview.

In the 2021 off-season, Matthews and McDavid trained together in Arizona, where Matthews grew up.

Matthews, who is listed at 220 pounds, got leaner and increased his speed and shotmaking.

Keefe said he has noticed a difference in Matthews’s play.

“He’s on the puck a lot quicker,” he said in a news conference. “His stamina seems to be better as well with the way he’s been able to maintain that speed and pressure on the puck throughout his shift.”

The smallest details matter to Matthews and McDavid.

Ron MacLean, host of “Hockey Night in Canada,” recalled how McDavid and Matthews went about learning how to one-time a slap shot a few years ago — an art that has been perfected by Ovechkin and Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos.

McDavid had asked Stamkos about the technique. MacLean relayed that to Matthews, and the Toronto center said that he didn’t have the ability to one-time a slap shot either.

Devils defenseman P.K. Subban advised that Matthews use a longer stick and different curve on his blade, but Matthews managed to develop a one-timer without changing his stick.

Matthews has been overshadowed by McDavid, a two-time scoring champion and the 2017 M.V.P., but he is closing the gap after scoring a career-high 47 goals last season.

Concurrent sets of stars have driven debates about who is better (see Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus; and Björn Borg and John McEnroe). McDavid and Matthews are just the latest.

“I think we will be talking about these guys in historical terms by the end of their careers,” Ferraro said.

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