Sunday is Hockey Day In America, a celebration of the sport in the USA. How better to start the festivities than by watching Jack Eichel, the best American prospect to come along in years, go up against the Penguins and red-hot Sidney Crosby?
“I’m excited about it,” Eichel said after practice Saturday at HarborCenter. “It’s always a great day for our sport in our country, a great way to celebrate it. It’s also a big test for us, a big game for our team.”
Eichel was in an upbeat mood. The Sabres had won in Columbus the night before, giving them points in eight of their last 10 games. Heading into the last seven weeks of his rookie NHL season, the 19-year-old from Boston is in a good place.
His team is playing better. Sunday, the Sabres will try to win a third straight home game in regulation for the first time since March 2011. Despite the team’s struggles, the players have stuck together and become a close-knit bunch.
It hasn’t always been easy, as Eichel admits. No matter how people warn you – and living with veteran Matt Moulson was a big help – the NHL is a culture shock for a kid. But after running into one of those rookie walls in December, Eichel settled into a groove and has scored 25 points in 25 games since Christmas.
“I don’t know what it is,” Eichel said, who is second among NHL rookies in scoring. “I could try to say a lot of things. Just my attitude. I think I’ve changed overall. I come to the rink a lot happier every day and I just try to enjoy everything. That’s what you should do. I’ve been lucky to get in a lot of really good situations.
“I’m just trying to simplify things,” he said. “Using my speed. Consistency. That was a big thing at the beginning of the year. I’d have a good game, then not have two good games and then have a good game. I’m just trying to bring it every night.”
There is a stunning simplicity to Eichel’s game. When he speeds into the offensive zone, advancing on the opposing goaltender, you can sense the trepidation in the opposition. He has a gift for making the difficult look easy.
But this is the NHL, where it’s difficult to score. The sport can be an endurance test of missed chances and disappointment. Eichel has a plus-12 rating in victories, minus-25 in losses. He’s never experienced losing to this degree.
“For me, the frequency of the game was a bit of an adjustment,” he said. “That Christmas break really helped me, going home and settling things down, seeing my family and spending time at home for the first time since August.
“Then you only go a month or so and you get the All-Star break. So they kind of separate the breaks pretty well. They were both needed for me to mentally and physically rejuvenate. It’s been pretty good since Christmas.”
Eichel knows you can’t take every loss to heart in the NHL. It’ll eat you up. Nowadays, when you walk into the Sabres dressing room you’ll often hear his voice rising above the din, helping to keep his teammates loose.
“He’s nice and loud,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said with a laugh. “He fits in great with our group. Everyone fits in. It’s fun. Jack is obviously a very, very high-class player and if you get a chance to know him, he’s a very good person. He’s energetic, charismatic, fun to be around. He fits in fine.”
In a high-energy locker room, who’s the funniest guy, Eichel was asked?
“Probably me,” said Eichel. “Yeah. I’m always talking. I consider myself one of the louder guys in the locker room, because it seems like I’m always saying something, usually messing around or picking on Jamie McGinn.
“I’m always talking on the bench during the game, too. I’m a competitive guy and I get really into things, so I like to be vocal and try to get guys going.”
Eichel might tease McGinn, but he was quick to praise his linemate for making things easier on the ice. He said he feeds off Zemgus Girgensons and Moulson. He said playing on the power play has helped him get more engaged in the game.
This sounds like a highly touted teenager, a budding superstar, understanding the value of being a good teammate. Eichel has the blend of supreme physical ability and infectious personality that creates leadership in hockey.
Eichel will almost surely be a captain one day. And make no mistake, just because he’s happier these days doesn’t mean the losses are easier to take. You’ve seen him during the difficult moments in games. Losing crushes the kid.
“It’s part of the hockey culture,” Eichel said. “Competitiveness and wanting to win. I don’t take lightly to losing and I guess I put a lot of pressure on myself. When I don’t perform up to my standard I definitely don’t take lightly to that.
“It’s something I’ve tried to work on. You can’t be too hard on yourself. You play 82 games. It’s a hard season, a lot of travel. It’s a lot of a lot. It’s definitely a mental grind. I’ve tried to learn to kind of forget the past night and focus on the next day. That’s something the older guys have helped me with.”
Many of the great players and coaches say they hate losing more than they love winning. Eichel said you can include him.
“Yeah, I like to think so,” he said.
Losing is what got Eichel here. But listening to the kid gives you hope that a new hockey day is coming, and that losing is acceptable no more.