Two assists in New York, two goals in Ottawa. Jack Eichel’s final two games before the NHL All-Star break were prime examples of how he can turn momentum on his own, a trait the Buffalo Sabres have not had from one player in many years.
With 16 goals and 18 assists over the first 50 games of his NHL career, Eichel is on pace for a solid rookie season. The 19-year-old’s current numbers translate to 26 goals and 56 points over 82 games.
“It’s great to go into the break on a positive note with a win on the road,” Eichel said after Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Senators allowed the Sabres to bounce back from Monday’s 6-3 loss to the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. “An emotional game at MSG was a tough loss for us to handle. Coming in here on a back-to-back. … It’s a big win for us and hopefully we can bring this momentum into our games after the break.”
Eichel hit the break with 20 points in his last 18 games (six goals, 14 assists). He had only one shot on goal in Buffalo’s 3-0 home loss last Friday against Detroit but bounced back strong as Zemgus Girgensons rejoined his line after a four-game absence due to injury. Eichel set up Girgensons for two goals in 73 seconds that pulled the Sabres into a short-lived tie in the third period in New York.
By now, 50 games is already more than Eichel played in either college at Boston University or with the United States National Development Team. So he’s had to rely on landlord Matt Moulson and other veterans like fourth-line winger David Legwand – who has 1,100 NHL games on his resume – for help in dealing with the grind.
“The frequency of games is obviously a lot more than I’m used to and it’s something I’ve tried to adapt to,” Eichel said when the team was in New York. “It’s nice to have guys like ‘Leggy’ and it’s great to live with a guy like Matt because they help you through it. It takes a toll on you mentally during the season. You’re playing a lot.
“All of us train so hard, eat the right way and we have so many strength and conditioning people, trainers, people that take care of you,” Eichel said. “But mentally, just getting up for every game and preparing the right ways and doing the right things, it’s a long season. You’re on the ice every day, but you’re playing hockey and it’s what you love to do so you really can’t complain.”
Eichel goes into the break second among NHL rookies in goals and points to Chicago’s Artemi Panarin. Eichel is the leader in power-play goals and shots on goal.
At their current paces, Eichel and Sam Reinhart would be the first pair of Sabres rookies with 30-point seasons since Thomas Vanek (48) and Jason Pominville (30) in 2005-06. They also are on pace to become the first pair of 20-goal Buffalo rookies since Danny Gare (31) and Peter McNab (22) in the Sabres’ 1974-75 Stanley Cup final season.
Assuming he finishes with more than 50 points, Eichel will be the first Sabres rookie to hit that mark since Derek Plante in 1994 and the second-youngest in franchise history to Hall of Famer Phil Housley, who had 66 points as an 18-year-old in 1982-83.
When the Sabres were in New York this week, coach Dan Bylsma said one clue he has about Eichel’s energy level is the amount of chattering the 19-year-old is doing on the bench during games. That had gone into a lull prior to Christmas but has steadily returned since then, starting with the four-point night Eichel enjoyed in his Dec. 26 Boston homecoming.
“Jack can be engaged in the game vocally and that’s really to me a big indicator of where he is on the ice,” Bylsma said. “Doing it night in and night out is a challenge. Traveling and getting in at 5 in the morning is a challenge for everybody, but a challenge for young guys that may not be accustomed to play this many games in rapid succession. Talking translates into him skating. It translates into him using his feet.”
His huge, powerful strides, of course, are one of the key elements of Eichel’s game that sets him apart from other rookies – and from a whole bunch of NHL veterans, too.
It was on display during his second-period goal Tuesday in Ottawa, as Eichel took a long lead pass from goaltender Robin Lehner, burst into the Senators zone ahead of players coming on the ice for a change, curled behind the net and beat goaltender Craig Anderson with a slick wraparound.
The wraparound play has become one of Eichel’s staple moves. He routinely enters the zone at full speed and often tries to beat goaltenders with his strong hands and wrists as they are pushing to the opposite post.
“I have a long stick and we had somebody driving the net in the crease so that gave me a little bit extra time,” Eichel said. “It’s a good feeling to be able to put those home.”
Eichel certainly has work to do on his defensive game, like any rookie center. His Corsi rating in five-on-five play is just a shade shy of 46 percent and he has a minus-11 rating for the season, including minus-10 at home.
Eichel seems to ride the momentum of a game and it carries into his 200-foot game. In Buffalo’s 20 wins, he has a plus-9 rating. In the Sabres’ 30 losses (26 in regulation), he has a stark minus-20 rating even though he has just two fewer points (16 in losses, 18 in wins).
The biggest lesson Eichel has learned to date?
“You’re not going to have it 82 times a year, so just know that and don’t get frustrated at yourself,” he said. “I think that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
With the Rochester Amerks having three games before the AHL All-Star break, the Sabres returned Cal O’Reilly, Tim Schaller and Phil Varone to Rochester on Wednesday. Ryan O’Reilly is the lone player heading to Nashville for the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday; he’ll be doing media availabilities there on Friday.
The Sabres are off from practice for the reminder of the week. Their next game is Wednesday in Montreal.