The “Three Stars” ceremony at the end of a game is essentially a look back, a time to celebrate the players who made something happen. It had a different feel Saturday. It was a look forward, a chance for Sabres fans to believe the struggles are behind them and great things are coming.
One by one, Hudson Fasching, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart stepped onto the ice for their moment in the spotlight. Three rookies, all under 21 years old, waved to the crowd in a scene that could replay itself over and over during the next decade if everything goes according to the blueprint.
“Obviously, the fans get excited about that,” Eichel said. “We’re young guys and we’re trying to get better every game. I’m sure they’ve seen all year the ups and downs and the struggles, but it’s great to see as of recently we’re playing better at home and getting more points and doing a better job for our fans.”
Fasching earned the Third Star after scoring in his debut, getting the Sabres started in a 3-2 comeback victory over Winnipeg. Eichel was the Second Star after firing home the game-winner. Reinhart, the First Star, tied the game and set up Eichel’s goal.
Reinhart and Eichel have combined for nine goals and 20 points this month, so it looks like the future has arrived.
“I don’t really look at them as rookies or young players anymore,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “They’re players that are stepping up for our team and leading our team in a lot of ways.”
The good news is the veterans have recognized what the young talent means. Rather than put the rookies in their place, the older players have welcomed them and helped them grow.
“The last couple years there’s been a lot of young guys coming into this organization,” Reinhart said. “The older guys, if you can call them that, really have done so well to make us feel a part of it and make this team as close as it is. For us to contribute like that makes it special.”
The contributions are significant. Eichel leads the team with 23 goals and reached the 50-point mark, becoming the youngest Sabres player to do so since Phil Housley in 1982-83. Reinhart is second in goals with 22.
“You want to keep getting better and never be satisfied,” Eichel said. “I think I’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Fasching joined the list of goal scorers in his NHL debut. While there were a lot of happy people in First Niagara Center, the odds of finding one more thrilled than Fasching ranged from slim to none.
“I was talking to my buddies and my parents, and I was like, ‘If I score in my first game I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be blacked-out on adrenaline and just so excited,’ ” Fasching said. “That was almost the case.
“It definitely puts me at ease a bit to know that I can have success. It definitely builds confidence for me just to keep moving forward and know that I can make plays. I can assert myself into the league a little bit, and I’m worthy of being here.”
Fasching’s enthusiasm filtered through the bench.
“Hudson’s first couple shifts were really high-energy, showed his speed. They were nothing like his sprint back to bench after the goal,” Bylsma said. “He came flying to the bench. It was infectious the energy he came flying back to the bench with how excited he was about getting that goal.”
Fasching, who skated 6:01 during the opening two periods, doubled that during the third. Bylsma bumped him to a line alongside center Ryan O’Reilly and left wing Evander Kane.
“That definitely was not expected,” the ever-smiling Fasching said. “I was sitting on the bench and coach kept tapping me. I’m like, ‘What, am in the way or something?’ Then he’s like, ‘No, you’re out there.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK. I’m going.’ ”
The rookie fun extended to defense. Casey Nelson, also making his debut after signing out of college last week, assisted on Fasching’s goal. He skated 16:33, including 53 seconds of power-play time.
He sensed right away that young guys have a home in Buffalo.
“The guys have taken us in well here and made us feel comfortable,” Nelson said. “They said you’re going to have a lot of games in between, and the first one you’re going to remember and the last you’re going to remember.”
Fans hope all the games are as memorable as this one.