There were maybe 3,000 people in the Sabres’ arena when Jack Eichel first showed what all the fuss is about, but it’s certainly the type of event that will grow through the years.
A decade or so from now, Sabres fans will ask each other, “Were you there that September night when Eichel scored his first goal in Buffalo, the electrifying game-winner?”
“Of course,” will come the reply. “And how about that pass to get the team to overtime in the first place?”
Most of the people will be lying, but so what? Eichel is already the stuff of legends, and Buffalo sports fans will be eager and wise to attach themselves to his tale.
“He’s a true diamond,” Sabres defenseman Brycen Martin said Monday, “and Buffalo’s going to be really happy with him.”
Eichel set up the tying goal with 5:47 left and buried the winner with 37 seconds remaining in overtime to give the Sabres a 3-2 victory over Boston in First Niagara Center.
Sure, it was just a prospects game, a lightly attended event that would normally fade from memory before the next weekend arrived. Eichel made it special.
The No. 2 overall draft pick threaded a perfect cross-ice pass to Martin to make sure the Sabres didn’t go down without a fight, tying the game at 2-all late in the third period.
“He can make plays that some pros can’t,” Martin said. “A player like that is going to make that pass. I had faith.”
The crowd, officially announced at 3,537, had faith anytime Eichel touched the puck. The decibel level continually rose, along with expectations, as the end neared. Folks were on their feet when he delivered the win in scintillating fashion.
Despite being clearly winded after playing what seemed like 15 of the final 16 minutes, Eichel found another gear. He beat a Bruins defender for a loose puck near center ice, then pulled away with every powerful stride. He got near the net and sent a laser into the top corner, drawing all of his teammates off the bench in a jubilant celebration.
When it was over, a red-cheeked Eichel let out a long exhale.
“I really wanted to score in Buffalo,” said the 18-year-old, who was blanked in July’s development camp and Friday’s tournament opener.
“I was on the bench after a long shift, and coach asked me if I had anything left. I figured I could go out there and see what I can do.”
It was just a prospects game, but it appears Eichel can do it all.
“It’s the manner in which he does it,” Randy Cunneyworth, Sabres prospects coach, said. “There’s calm. There’s poise. It’s thought out beforehand. It’s pure ability.”
The win gave the Sabres the Prospects Challenge tournament title. In addition to getting the first chapter of Eichel’s story, Buffalo picked up something else it wanted.
Anton Blidh was on his way toward becoming the latest Boston player despised in Buffalo. The fourth-line winger for the Bruins was roughing up Eichel after a whistle, yanking him on the collar while attempting to get him in a head lock.
After officials finally separated the two, Buffalo’s Nicholas Baptiste skated near and whacked Blidh from behind with his stick.
There’s little doubt Cunneyworth was smiling on the inside. The coach of Buffalo’s prospects and minor-league team, the Rochester Americans, is determined to develop a cohesive bunch, one that sticks up for each other at every turn. The message is clearly sinking in.
Sam Reinhart later got dropped at the blue line with a hard hit, and defenseman Jake McCabe swooped in to give the offending Bruins player a stiff cross-check on the ice.
“I think when you’ve got a real close gang of guys, nothing can stop you,” Cunneyworth said. “I think that’s part of the chore. Obviously, it has to translate to work on the ice and results, but that’s kind of the focus, bringing in a bunch of guys that want to be around each other all the time, want to work together, stick up for each other. I think that’s what you look for – and after that they go to dinner together.”
From hanging out at the rink to chatting in the hotel to sitting in the stands for the Bills’ victory, Buffalo’s prospects got to know each other better during the challenge. The event was definitely a victory.
“We’ve all become pretty familiar with each other and friendly,” Eichel said. “There’s a lot of good guys in here, and the Sabres as an organization have done a really good job of bringing good people into the organization. We all get along really well, and we all have each other’s back.
“That’s team cohesion, that’s team chemistry, that’s guys trusting each other, trusting the guy next to you. I think that’s important, and that’s the only way you’re going to win. We’re starting to get it in here.”