BOSTON – In a rookie season that will be full of milestones and mileposts for Jack Eichel, the day after Christmas certainly rates as one of the biggest.
The Buffalo Sabres’ first meeting of the season against the Boston Bruins is Saturday night, and it will mark Eichel’s first NHL game in his hometown. And although Eichel played for Boston University in huge games at TD Garden last season, it will be his first time skating there against the Bruins. Thus, it’s his first run against some core players who still remain from Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup championship team he rooted for as a 14-year-old in suburban North Chelmsford, Mass.
The Sabres and Bruins, like all NHL teams, have been off the last three days due to the NHL’s CBA-mandated holiday break. The Sabres are slated to fly from Buffalo Saturday morning and head right to the rink for the morning skate – their first workout since Sunday’s light practice in HarborCenter.
Eichel returned home after that session, the first time he’s been back since late August before the Sabres’ Prospect Challenge.
“I’m really excited but I hadn’t really put too much thought into it because it was a little bit away,” Eichel said. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, going back and playing in the Garden in front of family and friends. Every time you go to the Garden and watch games when I was little, it’s something I would always dream about and think about, so it’s nice to do that for the first time.”
Eichel won the Beanpot Tournament in the Garden last year with BU, and played in the Frozen Four there as the Terriers lost the national championship game to Providence.
“I’ve played big games there, sure,” he said. “But I’m just so used to the whole Bruins production, everything they do before their games. It will be a good experience for me.”
Eichel was certainly going to be the focal point of the Boston media anyway, but that scrutiny will likely grow in the wake of Monday’s banishment of former BU teammate Nick Roberto for gambling activities last season. CollegeHockeyNews.com reported that former Terriers were also involved but the school told The Buffalo News Eichel has not been investigated. The story broke after Eichel went on holiday break and he has yet to comment on it.
On the ice, Eichel hits town with nine goals and 16 points. Those figures rate third on the Sabres and sixth among NHL rookies in both categories. After all the hype surrounding last year’s draft, it’s bizarre to think neither Eichel nor No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid would rate as a Calder Trophy finalist at this point.
McDavid, of course, has been out with a broken clavicle since the first week of November. Eichel has been grinding through the Sabres’ difficult schedule.
At 34 games, Eichel has played pretty much the equivalent of a full college season and the wear and tear has been showing. Eichel hasn’t scored a goal in the last seven games and has just two assists in that span. In his last 11 games, he has just one goal and four points. It seemed like the 19-year-old needed the Sabres’ week off as much as anybody on the team.
“Everyone wants to talk about how many games you play and obviously it’s a lot,” he said. “But I don’t have much to worry about while playing hockey so I don’t want to make excuses for how I’ve been playing. It’s a good break for all of us, good for us to rejuvenate mentally and physically and attack the rest of the year.”
“I do think his last two games have been more engaged,” said coach Dan Bylsma, who said all the Sabres have been dealing with the wicked “velocity” of games from a tight schedule. “He needs a break to get refreshed and refocused, to use the time to reenergize and will come back to put a show on in Boston for his hometown.”
Eichel’s personal struggles were lessened because the Sabres went into the holiday break 3-1-1 after a disastrous 0-3 Western Canada road trip.
“We’ve gotten back to our game a little bit and did a lot of good things in those five games,” said Eichel, who assisted on goals in each of the last two, against Anaheim and Chicago.
Pressed on his own play, Eichel said he’s trying to not be too hard on himself and to accept small nuggets of success in each game.
“It’s hard but I think I’ve done some good things,” he said. “I’m pretty happy going to the break. I played a good game” against Chicago. “I think the last few I’ve played pretty well and been happier. I don’t think I’m ever satisfied, ever happy with where I’m at. I think this break will be good for me.”
Eichel has been getting quite the education thus far. He had a run-in with 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr during a game in Florida, got jostled at the end of a period by San Jose veteran Joe Thornton and has already played five games against Tampa Bay and Chicago – the teams he watched during Game Three of the Stanley Cup final last June when the NHL staged its annual visit to the game’s top showcase for the key draft prospects.
“Sometimes you see yourself and you’re on the ice with guys like Thornton, Jagr, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and you can be a little bit in awe,” admitted Eichel, who will go head to head with Ovechkin for the first time when the Sabres play Washington Monday and Wednesday. “But you’re a part of the league too now and you’ve worked to get in that position. So you try not to think about it too much.
“You can get in awe, start staring and they can go around you and score a goal. You obviously respect them, but you can’t give them too much.”
The Sabres have played well of late but still enter the game one point out of last place in the Atlantic Division and in 25th place in the NHL’s overall standing. The Bruins, meanwhile, have emerged as one of the surprise teams in the league and sit one point behind first-place Montreal in the Atlantic Division. They are 11-2-3 in their last 16 games.