PITTSBURGH – Jack Eichel turned 19 Wednesday and the first day of his final year as a teenager was spent getting ready for a big moment in his career: His first head-to-head chance against Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby when the Sabres and Pens meet Thursday night.
“I’m looking forward to playing against him, against a guy I watched growing up a lot and looked up to, so it should be good,” Eichel said after practice in Consol Energy Center. “He’s one of the best players in the world and I think you have to be excited to match up with him and play against him.”
Eichel said he has not yet crossed paths with Crosby. The Penguins superstar has had a few meetings with Edmonton No. 1 pick Connor McDavid.
“I watch a lot of hockey and I’m well aware of young guys coming in.” Crosby told Pittsburgh reporters here Tuesday before the Penguins left for Thursday’s game in Washington. “I get excited to compete every night, regardless of whether it’s against a younger guy or a guy who has played for 10 or 15 years. But, yeah, there are always those matchups. I definitely get excited for those.”
Eichel had perhaps his worst period of the season in the middle frame Tuesday in Philadelphia, with a couple of giveaways and puck fumbles in his own end. But he recovered to play a much stronger third and didn’t let the mistakes linger.
“Whatever I was doing, winning faceoffs, back-pressuring, whatever, if I didn’t have it last night, didn’t feel the best maybe, there are other ways to contribute,” Eichel said. “You get frustrated like anybody else. There are nights you don’t feel as great and you have to battle through it. It’s a test of your mental toughness.”
Eichel said he was quickly finding a comfort zone with new linemates Johan Larsson and Sam Reinhart. The Sabres are expected to keep all their lines from Tuesday’s game intact to start the game Thursday, a rarity this season.
“‘Lars’ wins a lot of battles in the corners and with him and Sam it’s a good line and I like playing with them,” Eichel said. “We all bring something to the table and when we were at our best, we were tough to contain.”
As for his birthday, Eichel didn’t know what would be planned to commemorate it. Rasmus Ristolainen turned 21 on Tuesday so Eichel had some thought about a group dinner. Eichel, however, said he expected to get some roasting from his teammates for a faux pas in Philly and was hoping landlord Matt Moulson might come through to help him.
“I forgot my credit card in my hotel room last night so Mr. Murray says I owe the team dinner,” said a smiling Eichel, referring to General Manager Tim Murray. “Maybe ‘Mouls’ will take me out. He does things like that.”
How good was goaltender Chad Johnson’s diving save in overtime Tuesday on Philadelphia’s Scott Laughton? Good enough to get slated No. 2 on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 on a night that featured Game One of the World Series and the opening of the NBA season.
Seemingly out of position and about to be burned for the game-winning goal, Johnson dove to his right and took the shot off his blocker. It kept the Sabres alive and Zemgus Girgensons scored the game-winning goal on a breakaway 33 seconds later.
“I sort of followed it with my eyes,” Johnson said Wednesday of the Laughton shot. “I knew I wasn’t going to get over there with my pad or have a good push. I just reached out. I knew I was in a bad position. You’re kind of in desperation mode and reaching back. At that stage, it’s mayhem, kind of summer hockey back and forth. It’s nice that we scored right after that.”
Johnson stopped 30 of 33 shots in the game and really had no chance on the final two goals he allowed. He was happy with the performance after giving up seven goals on 26 shots Friday night against Montreal.
“One save doesn’t make a whole career but it was big, we scored after that and got the win,” Johnson said.
• The Sabres have lost six straight against Pittsburgh since a win here on April 23, 2013. The teams’ last 20 meetings have all been decided in regulation, with Pittsburgh taking 15 of them. The last matchup to go past 65 minutes was the Pens’ 2-1 shootout win in Buffalo on Dec. 19, 2009.
• Pittsburgh won all three meetings last year and outscored the Sabres, 13-1. The Pens posted similar domination in 2013-14, taking the three games by a combined 12-2.
• Reinhart and Tyler Ennis both sat out practice Wednesday for what coach Dan Bylsma termed maintenance days. He said he expected them to play in the game.