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Sabres close with win, feel good about future

BROOKLYN – Jack Eichel has filled a lot of roles in the past year. During the draft process, he was the beacon of hope. As the year went on, he became the highlight maker. When the Sabres’ season ended Saturday night, he was the team’s leading goal scorer.

None of those were too surprising. However, playing the part of sage veteran just 81 games into his career is something not many people could have expected.

Whenever teammate Evan Rodrigues returned to the bench during his first two NHL games this weekend, Eichel leaned over with encouragement. It helped Rodrigues score his first goal during a season-ending 4-3 overtime victory against the New York Islanders.

“Every shift I came off the ice, he’s just told me to keep going,” Rodrigues said. “It was nice of him to kind of push me. I know he believes in me.”

Rodrigues believed in himself enough after the talks to make a nifty play on his goal, freezing a defenseman and beating the goalie during a rush.

“He’s a guy that feeds off confidence,” Eichel said. “You see how skilled he is. I was just telling him to keep shooting the puck.

“Sometimes you come to the NHL and you’re playing with Ryan O’Reilly and guys like that, you feel you always have to pass to them because of how great of a player they are. But he can move it and he can shoot it, and it’s great to see him snap that one home.”

No one sent more pucks home than Eichel. He finished atop the Sabres’ goal column with 24 in 81 games. He became the first rookie to lead Buffalo since Ray Sheppard in 1987-88.

“It’s nice,” Eichel said. “First of all, it’s a compliment to the people I’ve played with. I’ve gotten a lot of good passes and been the beneficiary of a lot of great plays from our team this year.

“We got contributions from a lot of guys, and that’s nice.”

Fellow rookie Sam Reinhart finished second with 23 goals. Ryan O’Reilly led the team with 60 points, including a career-high 39 assists.

The Sabres have been searching for centers to build around since 2007. With Eichel leading in goals and O’Reilly pacing in points, Buffalo has found them.

“You look at the future with Ryan there and Jack there down the middle, you’ve got strong guys,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s a big bonus for the future of this organization.

“It’s been fascinating to watch Jack play throughout the year and see how good he is, what his speed can do, what he can do to the other teams. When you look at the last half of the season, you see a guy who’s had the puck on his stick as much as or more than anybody in the league and shows that he can be a dominant player in doing that. I think that’s where he’s grown in the last 82 games.”

The future came up often in the dressing room. Buffalo went 20-14-7 in the second half, a playoff-type pace.

“It’s nice going out on a win,” said captain Brian Gionta, who scored a go-ahead goal in the third period and the winner in overtime. “The last half of the year is how we want to start next year. We’re a team that’s grown a bit, matured a bit.

“Anytime you don’t make the playoffs it’s frustrating. There’s no way around that. It’s disappointing. It’s hard. That’s what you play for is to be playing next week and to be in the mix. So it’s definitely disappointing.

“When you sit back and look at it, you’ve got to build off the second half of the year. That’s where we want to be as a team. That’s what we need to strive for is to be a team that makes the playoffs next year. There’s no reason why we can’t.”

Making the playoffs would create smiles as big as the one worn by Rodrigues. He admitted his cheeks hurt from grinning. It’s a small price to pay for success.

“I was ecstatic,” he said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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