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Mike Harrington: Welcome back, hockey season

It was two goals in less than two minutes. In the second half of the third period. Against one of the NHL's best teams and one of its legendary goalies.

Welcome back, Jack Eichel. Welcome back, hockey season in Buffalo.

What essentially served as Home Opener II provided the goodies that coach Dan Bylsma, everyone in the Sabres' dressing room and everyone in the stands were hoping to see in October.

It all went down so fast. Eichel scored the tying goal on the power play with 7:15 left. He scored the go-ahead goal on a bank shot off Mats Zuccarello with 5:32 left.

Sabres 4, New York Rangers 3. Bedlam in KeyBank Center.

That's three goals in two games for the boy wonder, a spit in the face of the dreaded high ankle sprain that could still linger as a factor to Eichel's season. He had said for a couple days and again in the morning how happy he was to be playing at home again. Then he made sure to let the hockey world know this is his house again.

"It was great to be back here," a beaming Eichel said a few minutes after the final horn. "This is one I had definitely been looking forward to."

The Sabres were playing well but still in a 3-2 hole midway through the third period against a Rangers team that was 13-0 this season when leading after two periods. That stat didn't matter. The Sabres were undeterred.

Things got rolling when Eichel was drilled with a clean check by Wheatfield product Adam Clendening but immediately drew a holding call on the Rangers blueliner a few seconds later. An earlier power play in the third period had fizzled. Not this one. Just 24 seconds into it, the game was tied. Kyle Okposo neatly feathered pass to Eichel and he snapped a shot through Henrik Lundqvist.

Eichel said the previous power play suffered because the Sabres were too fancy. This time, they kept things simple and worked from the outside in. Lundqvist, who was uncharacteristically shaky, stayed far too back in his crease and was burned thinking a pass was coming. That's the threat Eichel causes.

"He's a difference maker. He can open up a game at any team," said captain Brian Gionta. "Things can be quiet, quiet, quiet and then he can open the game up. He did that again tonight. He's feared out there, he's a threat every time he's out on the ice. Other teams have to be aware of him and it gets them back on their heels more than when you don't have those top guys in the lineup."

Then came the winner. Evander Kane, who had been brutal much of the night, played a brilliant shift that was capped by his breakaway on Lundqvist that just missed. Eichel never stopped. He bulled into the corner and got the goal scorer's luck, as Zuccarello tried to stop the pass with his left skate and instead directed it into the net.

The crowd of 18,047 whooped it up with the kind of noise not heard in these parts much in recent years.

"I knew that Lundqvist got over and I was trying to hit 'Kaner' coming back through," Eichel said. "Luckily I got a nice bounce and it was rewarding. Hockey is a generous game and we were able to pick up some interesting bounces, get a win and two points against a very good team. That's what we need to do at home."

At times, Eichel looked like a guy who missed 20+ games and coming back from a heavy ankle injury. There's not the huge strides and big acceleration we saw last season and it's unreasonable to think you're going to get that right out of the gate, although Byslma said Eichel was having skate issues in the first period. Hmmmm. That first period Tuesday in Ottawa was pure adrenalin. It sure kicked in again during the third period Thursday.

Bylsma said he saw it coming in the second period, when the line of Eichel, Kane and Sam Reinhart started to have some solid time in the offensive zone.

But this is more than you could have reasonably expected. Three goals, four points and two wins.

"Did I anticipate a two-goal game type of bump? No," Bylsma said. "But it just kind of shows what kind of player he is. He's a dynamic player. He brings so much to our team with speed, attack and everyone feeds off it."

Almost out of nowhere, it's easy to forget the Sabres are 4-1-1 in their last six games and 3-0-1 in their last four at home. And while they're still struggling to stay out of the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference, the pack above them is easily within reach. Especially with Boston coming to town Saturday.

The schedule coming up is brutal but five of the next six games are at home. Just as Eichel returned, the Sabres have a primo chance to run off some wins and jump into the playoff hunt they spent the summer expecting to be a part of. After nearly two months of mostly horrific home games, the fans' volume level sure said they're ready.

"It was great. That's what gets us going," Gionta said."That's the kind of energy we need, that we can feed off of and hopefully take advantage of that home-ice advantage."

More goals from Eichel will certainly keep the energy flowing. He knew he would contribute when he returned. But this much, this soon?

"It's nice but you just want to stay consistent," Eichel said. "Keep doing this night in and night out. You know you're not going to score every night but if you're able to find a way to contribute to the team, help us win games and get two points. That's my biggest goal. Just finding ways to try to contribute. I've been able to do that in the first two games and I want to find a way to continue that."

The Sabres are now 2 for 2 with their marquee man. This one came almost out of nowhere.

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