Five preseason games. Five short-handed goals. Two Jack Eichel highlight-reel entries.
It’s been a bizarre run of exhibitions for the Buffalo Sabres, posting a 4-1 record thus far and scoring a goal when they’ve been a man down in each game.
Eichel sent First Niagara Center into a tizzy Tuesday with his tally that opened the scoring in a 4-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Eichel saw only 29 seconds of the penalty kill working with Nicolas Deslauriers while Marcus Foligno was in the penalty box for boarding, but that was plenty of time to do damage. The puck popped free and Deslauriers pushed it ahead to Eichel just outside the Buffalo blue line.
One step, two steps, three steps and Toronto defenseman Connor Brown was left in the dust.
Eichel was alone from just outside the Sabres line all the way to the goal, leaving him plenty of time to gauge Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier. And Eichel didn’t miss, burning Bernier with a sizzling shot to the top corner that Bernier had no chance to glove.
“We’re doing a good job causing turnovers down low and our ‘D’ is doing a great job,” Eichel said. “When you do that, sometimes you get opportunities the other way. The power play is a little bit more lenient on the defensive side of things because they’re on the power play and we’ve been lucky enough to capitalize on the kill.”
The announced crowd of 17,357 saw what was happening as Eichel broke down the ice. And the place erupted about as much as you’ll ever hear in September when Eichel scored at 13:48 of the first period.
“I could hear them start to get going as I was breaking away,” Eichel said. “I was just praying I didn’t miss.”
“I’ve seen it time and time again,” marveled Sabres winger Evan Rodrigues, Eichel’s Boston University linemate. “I wasn’t too surprised at all. As soon as he got the puck, I think I was already standing on the bench knowing it was going in.”
Eichel has two of Buffalo’s shorties, both on breakaways. He fooled Minnesota’s Darcy Kuemper with a backhand through the legs for the winning goal in the third period of Buffalo’s Sept. 21 opener in St. Paul, then opted for the straight shot to burn Bernier.
“I knew I was going there right when I picked up the puck,” Eichel said. “I think guys are just comfortable with certain moves. I’ve had more success shooting it than deking so I thought that would be a better option.”
How weird is it to score a short-handed goal in five straight games? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Sabres have never done that in their 45-year existence in regular-season play. They scored a short-handed goal in four straight in 1994 and again in 1995. Never in five.
“I have never ever been part of a mentality like that,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “It would be one thing if we talked about scoring a short-handed goal or we’re looking for opportunities, which hasn’t been the case.” “It’s not something we’re trying to do, trying to look for opportunities to exploit. They’ve come and you’ve got a skilled player like Jack out there and it’s turned into two of them for us.”
Rodrigues, who scored Buffalo’s final two goals in the game, is the resident expert on Eichel while teammates and fans are still learning the scope of the rookie’s ability.
“The second he got the puck, they were neck-and-neck about the top of the circle. Then he was at the red line, the backchecker was at our blue line,” Rodrigues said. “He’s so powerful. His first stride gets further than most guys’ fourth of fifth stride. Once he has one step on you and he has that wide frame, you can’t do anything from there.”
Bylsma said the 18-year-old’s work away from the puck is far more significant at this stage than his five points and plus-5 rating in the preseason.
“He’s used his skating for defending way more for play away from the puck than he has for offense,” Bylsma said. “Frankly, I didn’t really see that in a lot of the games I saw him play. … He’s tracked pucks down, he’s tracked back, he’s caught players, he’s stripped players, he’s played well away from the puck defensively down low with his skating ability. If there’s anything that’s changed my impression, that’s been it.”