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Sabres' bounceback week puts Eichel in good mood for his big weekend

TAMPA, Fla. — Getting on the scene for a milestone moment in his career was a lot easier for Jack Eichel the way the week has gone for the Buffalo Sabres.

The red-hot Eichel's first trip to the NHL All-Star Game came on the heels of the Sabres' first three-game winning streak of the season. Buffalo ran roughshod over Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, winning all three games by a combined score of 11-1 in what easily ranks as the most dominant stretch of hockey the team has played in Eichel's three seasons.

The genesis of the streak? The 7-1 humiliation the Sabres absorbed at home in the Jan. 20 matinee against the Dallas Stars.

"Obviously you get embarrassed at home and you've got to look in the mirror," Eichel said Saturday at All-Star Media Day in the Tampa Grand Hyatt. "Nobody wants to be a part of that, 7-1 at home. It's embarrassing. It's good we were able to come back this week, play a few good hockey games and we want to keep that going.

"It's much easier to be here and enjoy with a couple wins in a row with the team playing well and in good spirits. Makes the flight from Vancouver home a lot easier. It's a good feeling you want to keep going."

Sabres' message after unreal road trip: 'This was no fluke'

Eichel hit town as a point-a-game player, with 49 points (including 20 goals) in 49 games. He was an easy choice as Buffalo's lone representative to the NHL's midseason classic and is one of eight forwards on the Atlantic Division team for Sunday's 3-on-3 tournament, which begins at 3:30 and will be nationally televised by NBC.

"I'm excited for it. It should be great," a smiling, chipper Eichel said during his 20-minute session with reporters. "A lot of goals, a pretty good pace. It seems enjoyable. I'm sure it will be fun and there will be a lot of plays made.

"It's a huge honor," he said. "You look around the room at some of the guys that are here and just to be here with them is pretty special. Some of the guys here I was watching playing in the All-Star Game when I was a kid growing up so that's pretty cool.

Eichel finishes third in Fastest Skater competition

Eichel has exploded over the last six weeks, with his 25 points in 17 games tied with Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon for the most in the NHL.

"He's already a star in this league," said Atlantic Division and Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. "Confidence is huge, especially as a young player. And I think when you get into your second and third year, that's when you really start to feel that confidence grow. You're comfortable in your surroundings. You understand. You watch different players, you play against them. You really start to realize how hard you have to work at your game in order to be an elite player in this league."

"He's so big and long and rangy and he can move," MacKinnon said. "He's become one of the best players in the league. Buffalo might be having a tough season but he's still producing at a great pace. There's no one way you can stop him because he can do a lot of things against you."

The Sabres' playoff hopes have been long gone but one thing Eichel wants to see happen the rest of the way is his team take advantage of its 20 remaining home games. The Sabres hit the ice downtown Tuesday against New Jersey with a 6-12-3 record at home, tied with Arizona for the fewest wins in the league.

"When we're on the road, we understand the challenge at hand," Eichel said. "I think we need to bring that at home, take more pride in our ice and playing in front of our home fans. At home this year, I don't think we've brought the energy and passion that we need to bring. So we've got 20 games here, basically at home the entire month. We need to use that to our advantage,
start making KeyBank Center a place other teams don't want to play and a place we take advantage of."

Sabres at the All-Star break: Where did it go wrong?

One player who doesn't figure to be around for many of those games is former Eichel linemate Evander Kane, one of the league's key trade targets heading into the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Eichel admitted it's going to be tough to see Kane leave, assuming that's the ultimate outcome.

"You never know what's going to happen," Eichel said. "Obviously it's not really my area of expertise but my first year I learned about how it's a business. Players have to do what's in their best interests and teams have to do what's in theirs.

"Personal relationships, friendships, you never want to see buddies go, people you enjoy being around. But you kind of have to put that aside and look at the business aspect of things. There's guys on the move in this league all the time and that's part of it. Obviously you're prepared for it and you just want what's best for the team every day."

For this weekend at least, Eichel is able to put the Sabres' struggles aside. His parents will be here to watch him compete with the game's best. In exactly the spot every Sabres fan expected him to be when he was drafted in 2015.

"A guy like Jack, we see the skill," Stamkos said. "And the last six weeks he's been on fire. So it's good that he's on my team at this all-star game. You can just see how much confidence he's playing with right now and that's huge. I don't think you can ever realize how much that means to an athlete and he has it right now."

"I'm pretty honored. It's pretty special," Eichel said. "I'm lucky to be here, happy about it. It's something obviously I've worked for and it's a credit to the guys in our room and the organization for putting me in a good situation to be here."

 

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