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Rookie duo playing big for Sabres

Though Jack Eichel was looking at nothing in particular, he clearly was replaying some fun and interesting memories in his mind. A smile kept flashing across his face as he described his friendship with Sam Reinhart, or Samson, as Eichel calls him.

“We’ve built a really good relationship off the ice,” Eichel said after delivering a last-second victory for the Sabres on Saturday. “We room together on the road. We spend a lot of time together, so just going through experiences with him and all the good times we had this year, we’ve become really, really close. He’s a great friend, and it’s a great relationship to have.”

Buffalo fans will no doubt agree.

The off-ice camaraderie has led to on-ice chemistry as the rookies have teamed with Evander Kane to create something special. In their seven games as linemates, the trio has combined for eight goals, 12 assists and 20 points. They totaled two goals and three assists Saturday during a 3-2 overtime victory against Carolina.

That’s the kind of production long-suffering Sabres fans have dreamed about since the organization drafted Eichel and Reinhart with back-to-back No. 2 picks.

“He’s one of my closer buddies, and I think that really helps translate on the ice,” Eichel said. “We know each other so well. We know where each other will be. I think we’ve just tried to keep things simple.

“Kaner’s a good complement to us. He’s physical, he finishes his checks. He gets in and he gets a lot of loose pucks. Me and Samson, we try to create stuff, move it. He’s so smart, it’s really easy to play with him.”

The production by Eichel and Reinhart will soon force coach Dan Bylsma into a decision. Reinhart has spent most of the season with Ryan O’Reilly, and they’ve bonded well. With O’Reilly possibly returning from injury this week, does Bylsma reunite the center with Reinhart or leave his rookies together?

“I’ve thought it about a little bit,” Bylsma said in First Niagara Center. “It does have an interesting decision to make. Sam’s played well with both of them, and I do see Sam starting to have some good chemistry being a wingman for Jack.

“They’ve started to generate chances in the last few games maybe in a way they haven’t in the previous games, jelling and using their speed together and being a factor as a unit together. This is probably the biggest example of that coming to fruition.”

Reinhart, in his trademark “do anything for the team” response, sees exciting benefits no matter who is in the middle of his line.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but obviously two great players,” Reinhart said. “They’re both so smart and know when to move the puck at the right time. For both of those guys, that’s at different times. I think Jack usually opens stuff up with creating speed. I think Riles moves the puck to open things up.

“We all kind of think the same way in the offensive zone. Not necessarily play the same way, but think the same way, and that allows us to read off each other. Whoever I get the chance to play with, I’m up for it.”

Each member of the top line touched the puck Saturday on the first of Eichel’s two goals. The puck went from Eichel to Reinhart to Kane to Reinhart to Eichel for a tap-in. If that’s difficult to keep track of on paper, pity the defenders who have to keep up on the ice.

“We’ve talked quite a bit and gotten to know each other as the season’s gone along,” Kane said. “Jack and Rhino kind of found their game and have found what’s made them successful at this level. I think it’s all starting to come together.

“It’s great to be able to see those guys have so much success at a young age. I’m happy that I can help and be a part of that.”

Eichel’s two-goal afternoon gave him 22 for the season, three behind rookie leader Artemi Panarin of Chicago. Eichel tied Peter McNab, Christian Ruuttu and John Tucker at No. 7 on the Sabres’ all-time rookie goal list, and he has 12 games remaining. The center scored the winner Saturday on a breakaway with one second left in overtime. He made it look easy, which conversely would have looked lackadaisical had goaltender Cam Ward made the save.

“I like using that five-hole move here and there,” Eichel said. “If you don’t score, you look like an idiot, but it’s nice that it was able to sneak through.”

Reinhart, meanwhile, continued to add to his assist total with another helper. He has six assists in nine games after registering only nine in the opening 58 contests.

“I think my game has continued to improve,” Reinhart said, “but with that being said, I felt there was quite a bit of opportunity at the start and I just kind of knew if I stuck with it they’re going to even out a bit.

“When things are going well, it’s always fun.”


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