Connor Who? Auston Who?

TORONTO (Nov. 2) — As so often happens in professional sport when hype trumps expectation, the main characters in Tuesday night’s drama at Air Canada Centre barely made it on stage.

This was billed as a showdown between the last two players chosen at the top of the National Hockey League draft… and, particularly, the home–town/out–of–town debut of the biggest generational talent since Sidney Crosby (perhaps even Mario Lemieux). It was such an occasion that the two greatest hockey players of all time — Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky — were in the house to watch. But, the curtain never lifted.

Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers were “B” actors throughout the production. McDavid, from Newmarket, Ont. (55 kilometers north of the ACC), had annihilated the Leafs with a five–point eruption in his only previous game against the team he grew up watching. That occurred at old Rexall Place in Edmonton on Feb. 11 of last season. Matthews, though rather proficient as a rookie, fell off just a tad since his four–goal, NHL–debut in Ottawa that made international hockey headlines — the Phoenix Flash with two tallies in the subsequent eight games before Tuesday.

As it turned out, Orr, now 68, and Gretzky, 55, may have been more productive.

Matthews and McDavid were held off the score–sheet — a Nurse; a Smith and a Lander playing second fiddle to Nazem Kadri, who shadowed McDavid like a Secret Service agent at a public event. When eluding Connor Mc–D, Kadri popped in two goals, including the winner at 12 seconds of overtime. It was a play that annoyed McDavid, who justifiably felt that Kadri yanked at his arm while bulling past him to beat Cam Talbot with a nifty backhand. But, the local prodigy evoked politeness in his post–game summation — holding the “opinion” he carried to the visitors’ dressing room while bestowing Kadri with full props.

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MY PHOTO OF THE OPENING FACE–OFF TUESDAY NIGHT: CONNOR McDAVID vs. NAZEM KADRI.

Trampled in all the Matthews–McDavid hype was a signature win by the home team.

Toronto sporting zealots need not be reminded that there have been few big hockey nights at The Hangar since 2004. Certainly not involving athletes wearing the blue maple leaf (those in patriotic red–and–white have done rather nicely). Yes, the brief playoff interlude against Boston that followed the lockout–shortened 2013 season amp’d up the ACC environment, but is mostly remembered, around here, for the Causeway Street Calamity — the “good guys” spitting up a 4–1, third–period lead in Game 7 at the TD Garden. Hockey occasions at Bay and Lakeshore have been reserved for behemoths of the opposition; inaugural NHL appearances, for example, of Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Patrick Kane.

Given the presence of Matthews — the Maple Leafs’ first No. 1 draft selection since Wendel Clark in 1985 — Tuesday night was altogether different. Not yet a Crosby–Ovechkin moment (that may come), but surely relative. As such, it seemed to not matter that the phenoms from each club faded to the background. Had the Leafs been strafed by another of Edmonton’s young guns — Ryan Nugent–Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Benoit Pouliat, Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi — or roughed up by former division rival Milan Lucic, fans would have left the arena whispering “been there, done that.” Instead, it evolved into an event for the home team. Even without a marked contribution from Matthews, the Leafs gutted out a one–sided night for Edmonton on the shot clock and left a distinct message: “This is our barn and it’s going to become a house of pain for those that dare to tread.” Given the ACC has been a house of comedy for visiting teams since the Pat Quinn era, Tuesday’s triumph was rather substantial — foretelling, in my view, many more–such occasions.

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TODAY’S TORONTO SUN PLAYED UP THE LEAFS WIN… AND THE PRESENCE OF ORR AND GRETZKY.

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I attended the Maple Leafs–Oilers game with my trusty NIKON:

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THE PRE–GAME SPOTLIGHT SHONE ON FREDERIK ANDERSEN — SPLENDID THROUGHOUT THE MATCH.

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CLOSE–UP OF REFEREE FRANCOIS ST. LAURENT ABOUT TO DROP THE GAME’S FIRST PUCK.

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ALL EYES, AND MANY–A CAMERA LENS (INCLUDING MINE) FOLLOWED CONNOR Mc–D.

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WHENEVER I LOOKED UP, MAPLE LEAF LEGENDS WERE SMILING AT ME.

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EVEN McDAVID FOUND SOMETHING TO LAUGH ABOUT — IN THIS PRE–FACE–OFF MOMENT WITH JVR.

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HOCKEY PHENOMS ON BOTH SIDES CARVED UP THE ACC ICE.

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MITCH MARNER LET IT HANG OUT WHILE GAZING AT THE VIDEO–BOARD DURING A PAUSE IN PLAY.

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IN THE FINAL MOMENT OF REGULATION, THE SHOT–CLOCK LEANED HEAVILY TOWARD THE VISITORS.

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REFEREE GARRETT RANK OF ELMIRA, ONT. — ALSO A TOP PROFESSIONAL GOLFER — CALLED TOGETHER McDAVID AND KADRI FOR THE OVERTIME FACE–OFF. TWELVE SECONDS LATER, KADRI SCORED.

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AND, THE CELEBRATION WAS ON.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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