BOSTON – No matter where his NHL career goes, no matter how many games he wins, how many goals he scores or how many trophies he eventually collects, the day after Christmas in 2015 will never be far off the radar in Jack Eichel’s memory.
For 50 minutes, things were a little on the rough side in Eichel’s NHL debut in his hometown with the Buffalo Sabres. The Boston Bruins had a 3-1 lead and the 19-year-old rookie had been on the TD Garden ice for two of the goals against his team.
Then all sorts of craziness happened. Ryan O’Reilly and Eichel scored in a span of 39 seconds to tie the game. O’Reilly set up Jamie McGinn for a go-ahead goal. Eichel scored one empty-net goal on a 150-foot shot and fed O’Reilly for another.
Almost out of nowhere, the Sabres had a stunning 6-3 win – with Eichel compiling a career-high four points while fist-pumping, wind-milling and smiling his way all over the rink.
When Eichel last played here more than eight months ago, his Boston University team lost to Providence in the NCAA Frozen Four championship game in a game that left him on a knee in disbelief at his defeat. Saturday ended quite differently.
“That was a special team but I have a lot of really good memories in here too,” Eichel said. “Those ones overtake that one bad memory. And this is another great memory that I’ll never forget.”
It was a crazy day for Eichel all around and he pretty much never stopped smiling. He met nearly 30 reporters after the morning skate, standing on a platform in a hallway near the Sabres’ dressing room, and the platform was put in front of his locker for another media session postgame.
“It was awesome,” said O’Reilly, who had a three-point game. “In his hometown. To play like he did tonight. It’s great. He’s a huge piece of our team and I’m sure he’s really happy with family being here. It was awesome for him. You know him. His emotions are always controlled. He’s such a dynamic player that every time he gets the puck, he’s trying to make something happen. Tonight he made some huge plays for us.”
The final analysis saw the Sabres score five goals in the final 9 minutes, 39 seconds of the game, and the goals actually came in a span of 8:49. Buffalo had not scored five goals that fast since 2006. Eichel became the first Buffalo rookie with a four-point game since Tyler Myers did it in 2010.
He had not scored in the last seven games until his pass to Evander Kane actually banked off the leg of Boston’s Kevin Miller past Jonas Gustavsson with exactly nine minutes left got the Sabres even at 3-3.
“I saw ‘Kaner’ in the back door and saw the goalie try to overcommit to me,” Eichel said. “I tried to go back across the crease to him and got a good bounce. I think there’s times this year I could have had points in games and didn’t and today I just got the bounces.
“It’s nice to score, it’s nice to get a win in the fashion that we did. I got some fortunate bounces tonight and I’ll take those.”
McGinn got the go-ahead goal by roofing an O’Reilly feed with 5:36 to play. The Bruins never got close to a tying goal. Eichel gave the Sabres a two-goal cushion with a shot from his own zone into the middle of the cage with 1:18 left.
Now Eichel’s skates were barely on the ice at all. Was he thinking hat trick? Simple answer: “Oh, absolutely.”
With that in mind, Eichel tore down the ice after a loose puck and fired it off the side of the net. He eventually ended up putting it into the slot for O’Reilly to bang home with 50 seconds to go.
“I haven’t seen Jack skate that fast yet this year,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “ ... And haven’t seen the smile on his face either that we saw with the positive result we saw in the third period.”
The Sabres rallied even in the face their deficit. David Krejci made it 3-1 for the Bruins at 6:59 of the third, whacking in a second rebound past Chad Johnson. The Bruins were 11-2-3 in their last 16 games and a win would have put them in first place in the Atlantic Division. But the Sabres were undeterred.
“We were starting to find our legs and starting to turn it on there,” said O’Reilly. “We weren’t fazed by that goal.”
“One of the most underrated players in the NHL,” Eichel said of O’Reilly. “To be in the locker room and see him on a daily basis and how hard he works, it’s somebody I can look up to and try to model myself after. The way he plays 200 feet. He’s good in every aspect of the game. He’s our MVP right now and the absolute catalyst of this team.”