ST. PAUL, Minn. – It was the first preseason game and the Buffalo Sabres’ 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild ultimately doesn’t count for anything tangible. But what happened Monday night in XCel Energy Center, exhibition or not, sure can build up quick equity on the confidence scale for Jack Eichel. And for his teammates.
It was star power on display as Eichel set up the tying goal on a perfect pass to Matt Moulson 1:36 into the third period, and then scored the winner himself at 5:44 on a picturesque short-handed breakaway befitting his status as the NHL’s No. 2 overall pick.
Eichel was on the ice for just nine seconds of a tripping call to Brady Austin. It’s all he needed. Eichel won a faceoff in his own end, Cody Franson chipped the puck to the neutral zone and Eichel made Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon look silly in beating him to it. With a burst of speed, Eichel drove in alone on Darcy Kuemper and burned the Wild netminder with a quick backhand between the legs.
“It was a good bounce after a nice clear by ‘Franny,” Eichel said. “I got a little break there and it was nice to get the first one. These goalies are so big and athletic. You just try to move them and find little holes. Luckily I was able to find one there.”
“I don’t think he took a stride past the blueline,” Moulson said, almost stunned. “He’s sure got that smooth skating style.”
Moulson was the beneficiary of a perfect Eichel pass after some great work on the wall by Zemgus Girgensons. Eichel grabbed the puck in the circle to the left of Kuemper and found Moulson to the goalie’s right for a quick tap-in.
“I’ll take 20 of those off the feed from Jack,” Moulson said. “He’s the type of player if you get open, he’s getting you the puck. His head for the game is tremendous. Obviously that goal he scored to read the play, poke it out. I don’t think there’s too many guys in the league who can catch him when he gets a step.”
Coach Dan Bylsma said he likes the line because Moulson’s best work comes within 20 feet of the net, exactly where Eichel can feed him, and Girgensons can provide support along the wall, in the faceoff circle and with defensive zone responsibilities.
Girgensons admitted he’s interested to see how the chemistry develops as well.
“That’s one of the main things with new guys. You learn how they play, where they will be in all different kind of situations,” Girgensons said. “That’s what makes lines really good – where they know not even looking where the other guy is going to be. That’s a big thing to get.”
There’s no hot potato when Eichel has the puck, whether he’s passing or shooting it. Patience is one of his great virtues.
“His head is always up,” Girgensons said. “He sees his reads, reads the ice super well. That’s a great thing to have.”
“He’s everything that you hear,” said veteran Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter. “Steady, big, long reach, upright skater. He slows the game down.”
Eichel played 25 shifts totaling 17 minutes, 26 seconds. The goal was his only shot on goal on the night. He had three attempts blocked and went 6-8 on faceoffs. But he did plenty on the ice at both ends, including a strong backcheck on Wild star Zach Parise in the first period to foil a scoring attempt.
“He tracked back extremely hard, created some turnovers, was hard in his D-zone,” Bylsma said. “I thought that was the best game I’ve seen him play away from the puck and it’s something we talked about before the game with him. He was extremely good at it. We probably saw his speed more defensively tonight than we did offensively.”
Eichel actually admitted he was nervous before this one.
“It’s obviously human nature and it’s pretty normal that you’re a little nervous for the first one,” he said. “After your first few shifts when you get hit, when you hit someone, I think you kind of get in the game and get some confidence going.”
It was sure going later in the first period when Eichel burned Spurgeon with a spin-o-rama move in the Wild zone that drew ooohs and ahhs from the announced crowd of 17,217. But after creating room, Eichel’s pass was intercepted. A few second later, Spurgeon actually went to the other end and scored the game’s first goal.
“I don’t know how I really fell into that move,” Eichel said sheepishly. “It’s a little move I worked on this summer. Too bad I ended up turning the puck over and they went down and scored. I wish I would have shot it. It’s a learning moment for me: Get pucks to the net.”
That’s what Eichel did in the third period. It what Sabres fans have spent months hoping for.