Justin Falk heard the hype. He figured most of it was warranted.
But the Sabres defenseman had no idea Jack Eichel could be this good.
“I didn’t realize what kind of a difference-maker he was,” Falk said after Eichel led Buffalo to a 4-3 victory over the New York Rangers. “I knew that he could affect the game somewhat, but the way he’s skating, the way he has puck control out there, ultimately it leads to our team puck control, and it’s a big difference.”
Falk, goaltender Anders Nilsson and center Derek Grant are getting their first glimpse at Eichel. The offseason acquisitions knew they were joining a team that had a young prospect. Eichel has needed only two games to show them he’s more than that.
After recording a goal and assist in his opener Tuesday, Eichel scored twice in the final 7:15 Thursday to rally the Sabres to another win.
“It’s obviously fun standing back there watching him play his game and step it up,” Nilsson said in KeyBank Center. “When he does that, the whole team kind of builds off that. He scored some huge goals for us.
“I knew he was a great player, and he showed that in the first two games.”
Eichel, who missed the opening seven weeks with a high-ankle sprain, skated 19:57 against the Rangers and attempted a game-high 12 shots.
“It’s never easy coming back when you’ve been out that long, but it looks like he hasn’t missed a game,” Grant said. “I knew he was a really good skater and sees the ice well. He’s got a good shot. He uses his long stick to his advantage, whether it’s holding guys off or slinging pucks. It’s fun to watch.”
The fun went to a new level when Eichel scored the winner with 5:32 left. It’s easy to dismiss it as a fluke. His pass to the front bounced off the Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello and caromed into the net.
Nilsson and Falk, however, believe Eichel made his own luck.
“I tip my cap to him,” Falk said. “He works his butt off all game, and you’re going to get bounces like that in the third where one goes off their guy. Those are going to come around for you if you keep doing things like he’s doing all game.”
Said Nilsson: “He scored some huge goals for us. Not only that, he showed some huge character at the end and worked hard. He won some important puck battles. When the guys see that, it brings everyone up and brings momentum. It’s huge.”
By lifting the Sabres to victories, Eichel has lifted a weight off the scorers’ shoulders. Buffalo had just 17 goals in 12 games before the center arrived. The team has potted nine in his two outings.
“When you’re struggling to score goals, sometimes a spark like that takes pressure off other guys and allows everyone to settle in and just play their games,” Grant said. “It adds a big boost to our team and depth to our offense.”
Eichel earned every accolade tossed his way Thursday, but he had help. The Sabres attempted 71 shots compared to 48 for New York. They spent 12:47 in the offensive zone, five minutes more than New York was in Buffalo’s end.
It allowed them to improve to 4-1-1 in the last six games and 9-9-5 overall.
“We dominated the game,” said Nilsson. “We were the better team, especially for the second and third. It was nice to get rewarded.”
They’ll try to extend their run Saturday afternoon when Boston visits. Five of the next six games are at home, where the Sabres are on a 3-0-1 run.
“We have a little more jump in our step,” Falk said. “We went through a tough stretch with a lot of hockey. We got a bit of rest after Washington, got him back, and all that put together is having us going in the right direction.”