SAN JOSE, Calif. – For one of the rare times in his rookie season, Jack Eichel got schooled Wednesday night in Anaheim. Trying to learn from the experience, his education continued with another big test here Friday.
With the absence of the injured Ryan O’Reilly, matchups at center aren’t nearly as favorable for Eichel as they have been most of the season. He got a heavy helping of San Jose veterans Joe Thornton and Logan Couture as the Sabres beat the Sharks, 3-1, in SAP Center.
Eichel was heavily shadowed during Wednesday’s 1-0 loss by Ducks veteran Ryan Kesler, getting held to two shots on goal and being no factor on offense. Things were even worse in the faceoff circle as Eichel lost 16 of the 19 draws he took – including 13 of 16 against Kesler.
“I think it is a bit of an education,” acknowledged coach Dan Bylsma. “In Anaheim we saw probably for the first time a straight-up matchup against one of the better checking centers in the league, and we saw that pretty repeatedly in that game. He’s going to be faced with a matchup situation again” by the Sharks.
Eichel is expected to see more of the same Saturday night when the Sabres return to Southern California and meet the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center (11 p.m.; MSG, Radio 550 AM). That game will almost certainly pit Eichel going head-to-head with a pair of two-time Stanley Cup winners in Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter.
“I talked to Coach about it, and it’s probably the first time this season I’ve been checked like that and really keyed on,” Eichel said of Kesler’s shadow routine. “It’s tough, but if I want to be the player I want to be, it’s something I have to learn to deal with and get through.
“More than anything, it’s a great experience for me, a real good test to play other teams’ top lines. You get a great opportunity to play these big names out West. I have to take on more responsibility, and that should be good for me. It’s something where I have to really strive to get better in these next two games and bring it back to Buffalo.”
Eichel entered play Friday tied for second among rookies in points (41) and tied for third in goals (17). He did not have a goal in the last four games and had scored just one in the last 11 but had been collecting points. In the last 25 games, Eichel had 21 points. He did not have a point and again had just two shots on goal Friday, but improved his faceoff record to 9-10.
Bylsma admitted the coaching staff is taking more of a sink-or-swim approach to Eichel and newly christened center Sam Reinhart with O’Reilly out. Barring a miraculous winning streak, the Sabres are out of the playoff hunt, and the final few weeks of the season are thus a way to expose their young players to more situations.
“It’s maybe the first time he’s dealing with that and the first time we’re kind of letting him deal with it,” Bylsma said. “With Ryan O’Reilly, you get a little more protection and different matchups for Jack. And now on the road – and especially on this trip – he’s going to be seeing three big centers and three big matchups for him.”
The physical hockey and big bodies among Western teams have held Eichel down this season. In 23 games against Western Conference team, Eichel has just 13 points (four goals, nine assists). In 39 games against the East, Eichel has 28 points (13-15).
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Eichel is certainly no slouch physically. But the 19-year-old is at a distinct disadvantage in technique against experienced players like Kesler (6-2/202), Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf (6-4/221), Thornton (6-4/220), Couture (6-1/2o0), Kopitar (6-3/224) and Carter (6-4/215).
“These are guys who use their body to their advantage,” Eichel said. “You really see how they protect pucks in the corners. They win a ton of battles. When they get the puck, it’s tough to get it away from them. That’s something that I need to learn to do and try to get better at.”
Chad Johnson got the start in goal for Buffalo on Friday night, likely the final one in Blue and Gold for the unrestricted free agent. The Sharks and St. Louis Blues are the two teams most prominently mentioned as landing spots for Johnson, who would be an upgrade at the backup slot for either club.
Martin Jones got the start for San Jose and was looking to become the fifth goalie in the NHL this season to get to 30 wins.
Robin Lehner, who played his 100th career game in Anaheim, is likely to start in Los Angeles. He had started the previous five games entering Friday. In his last five games, Lehner has a 1.39 goals-against average and 0.956 save percentage, the best stretch of his career. His record in that stretch, however, is just 2-2-1.
The Kings enter the game with three straight wins, all by 2-1 scores. Prior to that run, they had lost seven of 11 games and the slump ended their runaway in the Pacific Division. Los Angeles entered Friday just four points ahead of Anaheim and six ahead of San Jose.
Sabres defenseman Cody Franson did not take the morning skate Friday after being on the ice with the team the first two days of this trip.
“It’s an indication he’s still not getting 100 percent better yet,” Bylsma said. “He’s had an active day workout-wise (on Thursday) and today he’s taking the day off.”
Franson suffered a neck injury on a hit Feb. 19 in Columbus, and Bylsma said the veteran is also dealing with another unspecified ailment.