TORONTO – The Sabres’ final three scoring plays Monday read like a rebuild blueprint:
• Jack Eichel scores in the third period to pull Buffalo within a goal.
• Evander Kane scores to tie it.
• Sam Reinhart scores the lone shootout goal to deliver a 4-3 victory over Toronto.
It sounds like a fantastic night for the Sabres’ top line. In reality, it was only a great 17 minutes. That might make it even more significant.
Buffalo’s No. 1 unit had a forgettable two periods in Air Canada Centre. It gave up on goal on the opening shift just 25 seconds into the game. The Sabres’ No. 2 overall draft picks spent 40 minutes looking at the back of Nikita Soshnikov, an undrafted, unknown Russian who was the best rookie on the ice by a mile.
But when the Sabres needed their marquee players to show up, they did. Eichel and Kane erased a two-goal deficit in the final 13 minutes, and Reinhart teamed with goaltender Chad Johnson to give Buffalo just its second shootout win in eight chances.
“It’s really big for us to be resilient in that third,” Eichel said. “It’s great to see it. Every game’s not going to be pretty. As a line it’s not the start we wanted at all.”
Eichel’s adrenaline finally starting pumping with 5:21 gone in the third period when he and Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri got into scrum, with both players going to the box. Eichel was a different player when he came out.
“Yeah, a little riled up,” the 19-year-old said. “It’s a physical game, emotional, and I thought I needed to get a little more engaged.”
Eichel became the youngest Sabres player ever to reach the 20-goal milestone, eclipsing by nine days the record set by Pierre Turgeon in 1988-89. Matt Moulson gave the puck to Eichel in the slot, and he ripped it home with 12:39 to play.
“It’s nice that you can score your 20th with the guy that lets you live in his house with him assisting on it,” Eichel said. “You always want to set yourself some goals. It’s something that you want to get to and then see where that takes you.
“I’ve been the benefactor of a lot of great plays and being able to finish them off. It’s a great feeling, and it’s really a testament to the guys in the room.”
Kane scored less than three minutes later after Reinhart stole the puck deep in the Toronto zone and set up his linemate for an easy tap-in. Suddenly, a rough night for the No. 1 line was no longer looking bad.
“Our group didn’t play well, the top line included, for a good portion of the game,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I was real disappointed about the way we all played, including the top line, and I knew we needed more from them. They needed more from each other. It is good to see them step out in the third and come through for us.”
After Leafs goalie Garret Sparks made a nice glove save on Eichel during the shootout, Reinhart found the net to complete the comeback for the team and the line.
“No real excuse for why we didn’t come out strong for the first part of that game and really the majority of it,” Reinhart said. “To win it the way we did in a shootout, where we haven’t had success, was nice for us to do.
“It’s a good feeling for us. It seems like it kind of shifts every night who’s kind of producing. That’s important. It happened to be us tonight even when we weren’t at our best for the majority of the game. We were able to bear down and find a way to do it.”
Eichel, Reinhart and Kane are cornerstones of the rebuild, so seeing them respond to adversity was important for the organization.
“They’re so relied upon on this team to get goals,” said Johnson, who made 30 saves and three more in the shootout. “I’m sure they feel pressure when they’re not scoring. We have some top guys out with Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Ennis, so that puts more pressure on them. For them to get goals and get confidence, it’s awesome. They’re so young, too, it kind of blows your mind how much impact they have on this team.”