Eichel and Reinhart. Reinhart and Eichel.
As rookie seasons go in Buffalo Sabres lore, no matter which way you turn it, it looks like the team’s back-to-back No. 2 overall draft picks are going to post some hard-to-reach numbers this season.
Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart both scored in the first period Sunday, forging a tie with Ryan O’Reilly for the team lead in goals as the Sabres streaked to a 3-0 advantage and beat the Colorado Avalanche, 4-1, in a First Niagara Center matinee.
Eichel beat the Avs down the ice with a solo rush and burned goalie Semyon Varlamov between the legs to open the scoring at 2:02 of the first period and the Sabres never trailed. Reinhart tipped home an O’Reilly shot at 17:14 of the period to make it 3-0. It was the 17th goal of the season for each.
Reinhart, who missed three games with a concussion, is on pace for 25 goals while Eichel’s pace is 24. They look poised to join Danny Gare and Peter McNab as the only pair of rookies to hit the 20-goal plateau in the same season in Sabres history. Gare (31 goals) and McNab (22) did that during the 1974-75 Stanley Cup final season.
“It’s pretty significant,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “There’s a lot of hype and focus on Jack coming in this year with what he was going to bring and what he was going to do. Sam has stepped up in a big way. To see that from two young players, two teenagers for the most part, leading the way in that regard is a great sign for our team.”
Eichel (38 points) and Reinhart (25) will be the first Sabres rookie tandem with 30-plus points apiece since Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville (2005-06). Eichel looks like a good bet to became the first Buffalo rookie with 50-plus points since Derek Plante in 1994 and the second-youngest since Hall of Famer Phil Housley had 66 in 1982-83.
“They’ve been pushing each other. Both young, growing together,” O’Reilly said. “They’re the future of this and they’ve been huge for us. It’s definitely cool to see the competitiveness go back and forth.”
Eichel and Reinhart are just one behind the NHL rookie goal lead shared by Chicago’s Artemi Panarin and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, who did not score in the Wings’ 6-5 win Sunday over Boston.
Eichel’s goal gave the Sabres a booster shot of early momentum out of the gate. He circled through his own zone, gained the neutral zone and Avs zone, used defenseman Tyson Barrie as a screen and beat Varlamov between the legs to add another YouTube special to his rookie season resume.
“It seems like I’ve been missing the net a lot lately,” said Eichel, who had not scored the last six games. “Good things happen when you hit the goalie so it was nice to get one. It’s tough for the goalie to pick it up when you shoot through the defenseman’s legs. It’s something I’ve been working on and it’s a good way to get the game started.”
“It’s a pretty vicious shot, the one he’s taking,” Bylsma said. “It’s a hard, heavy wrist shot and I think one if he can take and focus on taking and hitting his mark, he’s going to score an awful lot of goals that way.”
Reinhart’s goal was yet another example of his soft hands, as he tipped O’Reilly’s long half-slapper out of mid-air. It was his fifth goal in the last six games.
“It’s his intelligence, the way he separates himself,” O’Reilly said. “He finds a way to get in that open area where you can get the puck to him and he can tip it. His hands, you see in practice all the time the way he tips pucks. He’s an elite player.”
It’s the kind of play that’s regularly worked on in what General Manager Tim Murray calls the “O’Reilly practices,” the post-practice sessions that often stretch for 30 minutes or more past when the coaches complete their work with the team.
“Right from that spot he was shooting from, high slot top of the circles,” Reinhart noted of the similarity to practice. “He got it by a couple guys and made it easy for me standing in the soft area.”
“It’s great to see,” Eichel said. “Sammy has been pretty hot since the break, going to the net and getting rewarded – he’s got a knack for it. It’s a great shot, and Sammy is there and tips it home.”
After a first NHL go-around that ended after nine games and a return trip to junior hockey last year, Reinhart has proved more than ready this year. And a 20-goal season would be a huge return on his offseason work.
“That would be nice,” he said. “We’re all trying to chip in when we can. … It’s nice to motivate each other to keep producing.”
O’Reilly, who had eight goals in 81 games of his rookie season in 2009-10, laughed when asked what it’s like to watch two rookies on the same team like this.
“To get those kind of numbers is really impressive,” O’Reilly said. “They’ve excelled, grown their games from Day One, and they’re only going to get better. They’re huge pieces of this team. For them to excel and make an impact right away shows how great they’re going to be.”