CALGARY, Alberta – Evander Kane’s speed and physical play. Jack Eichel’s speed and puck movement. Dan Bylsma liked the look early in the season. With the Buffalo Sabres in a funk on their Western road trip, the coach is going back to the combination of two of his team’s marquee talents.
Kane and Eichel played together in the third period Monday in Vancouver as part of Bylsma’s spur-of-the-moment moves in a game that was already lost. But they were back on a line in practice Wednesday in the Saddledome and will hook up with captain Brian Gionta during Thursday night’s game against the Calgary Flames.
“They had some success earlier in the season playing together,” Bylsma said. “There wasn’t a lot of finish in that success but they had opportunities and I think it’s two guys that have a ton of speed and can really play off each other. There are times Jack has been the speed factor on his line. To have another element of speed next to him is good and I think Evander can feed off that as well.”
Jamie McGinn, on a career-high scoring streak of six games, will be taking Kane’s spot with Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart. Kane was working well with O’Reilly with three straight multi-point games. But in the first two games on the trip, he went pointless with a minus-3 rating.
In Monday’s game, however, Kane had 11 shots attempts, nine hits and was extremely active. Eichel is a little more of a puck carrier than O’Reilly, however, so Kane is ready to adjust.
“You have to find ways to get open when he has the puck and put yourself in a spot to receive it,” Kane said. “Rather than support him, he likes to play a little more one-on-one and hold on to the puck. So when he has it, it’s all about me getting open and vice versa.”
Eichel has just two points in his last five games overall and also has just two in his last seven road games.
“It should be good,” Eichel said of having Kane on his wing. “Hopefully we can utilize our speed and attack the other team. I don’t know how many of us were really happy with our game in Vancouver. It’s not the way we want to play as a team and I’m sure individuals aren’t happy either.”
Kane had plenty of good scoring chances while playing on Eichel’s wing in October before going down for 10 games with a knee injury, but didn’t convert too often. Then came the knee injury. Kane has slowly worked his way back to full speed since and has pretty much been Buffalo’s best forward in recent games.
And Kane has been practicing as hard as he plays, at one point Wednesday slamming his stick on the glass three times in succession after he didn’t like how a drill was going.
“Keep your mindset and it can help your consistency,” he said. “You’re not trying to kill your teammates, run around out there, take a one-timer and hurt a guy. Today, we needed a little bit more than usual after a couple tough losses. I don’t think we were as sharp as we would have liked at the start of practice but it definitely got better.”
Kane may have also been blowing off some residual steam from the Vancouver loss.
“I’m playing in front of my hometown family and friends and so are a couple other guys and we want to come out and have a much better performance than we had,” Kane said. “Again we scored first and let that lead slip away. It was a tough game mentally, just the same as it was physically. I was frustrated, and I took penalties I shouldn’t have.”
The Sabres have scored first in the last two games, but promptly gave up three goals in Edmonton and two in Vancouver before the first intermission. So the good feelings of an early lead didn’t last.
“What we need to do is go get the next one. Score two,” Kane said. “It’s playing the same way, playing hard. Just our intensity level mentally and physically needs to be higher and more consistent throughout the game. That’s what good teams do, what winning teams do. No matter what the score of the game.
“If they’re up 5-0, they’re trying to get six. That’s an attitude you have to have. It’s not about embarrassing a team, it’s about stepping on their throat and finishing them off. You can win a game in the first period. You score three and you’ve got a real good shot of winning the game. Look at Edmonton. They scored three and won the game. We have to have that mindset.”
Eichel said the team’s puck management has been an issue. The Sabres were sloppy most of the night Sunday in Edmonton, and played 11 good minutes in Vancouver before having similar struggles with the puck and running into penalty trouble.
“We’re turning the puck over too much,” Eichel said. “We’ve played well in second and thirds in terms of puck management but we’re already behind the 8-ball down by a few goals. We’re starting well with the first goal but we have to stay at it. We’re deviating from the way we want to play.”