Somewhere out in the NHL multiverse there is a timeline where Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel became fierce rivals.
Both were considered blue-chip talents at the top of the 2015 draft. One Canadian, one American, both centres that were supposed to turn around moribund franchises from their native countries. If McDavid had slightly underperformed expectations, and Eichel had surprised in the opposite direction, the two would've met in the middle.
In our timeline that's not what happened. McDavid went on to become the best player of his generation, while Eichel has excelled at times but experienced a number of injury setbacks and couldn't get the Buffalo Sabres to the playoffs.
That's why it's surprising to see the 26-year-old holding his own against McDavid so far in the Vegas Golden Knights' second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers. After Eichel's strong effort in Game 3, the two have almost identical offensive stats through three contests, with Vegas's star centre producing far more at even strength.
Taking the even-strength numbers a step further, the Golden Knights have controlled the play when Eichel has been on the ice, while the same can't be said for the Oilers with McDavid.
None of this is to suggest that Eichel has suddenly usurped McDavid as the best player in the world. These are surprising small-sample numbers. Over the course of the whole series, we'd still bet on the Oilers captain to tip the scales in his favour.
This is an interesting moment in time, though, and it shows how high the Golden Knights' ceiling is. If their top centre is matching McDavid shift-for-shift, their chances of winning the series are extremely good.
Edmonton's best asset in this series is its top-of-the-lineup talent headlined by McDavid and the red-hot Leon Draisaitl. Vegas has better depth, so if Eichel even comes close to matching the Oilers' top guys the Golden Knights can feel good about the rest of their lineup besting the bottom of Edmonton's roster.
On Monday, at least, Eichel looked the part with a pretty snapshot goal and two primary assists.
Eichel freezes the tendy then snaps one home! 🥶 pic.twitter.com/yTpuz9CQhb
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 9, 2023
With 10 points in nine postseason games, Eichel has made it easy to forget that this is his first run through the NHL playoffs after so many years of futility in Buffalo. He's not only up to the task, but exceeding expectations.
It's too late for the 26-year-old to dethrone McDavid as the best player from the 2015 draft, but if Eichel keeps playing this well he may earn the satisfying consolation prize of snuffing out the playoff dreams of the only man picked ahead of him eight years ago.