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With Eichel back, Sabres seek fresh start at home

Welcome to Home Opener II.

The calendar may say it's December 1 and the first official home game of the Sabres' season was that dreary Oct. 13 loss to Montreal. But it's fairly obvious to anyone paying even a modicum of attention that the home hockey season at KeyBank Center is getting a fresh start tonight with the game against the high-flying New York Rangers.

That's because Jack Eichel is making his home debut.

"The people here are really good to me, always really nice," Eichel said after today's morning skate. "It's going to be a fast game and I know I'm excited for it."

The Sabres are only 3-4-3 downtown this season. They're last in the league in home victories and  28th in home points with nine (Calgary is last with eight).

Fans who complain they're getting no bang on the entertainment value scale for their bucks have been spot on. In 10 games downtown, the Sabres have scored an NHL-low 14 goals at home and no one else has fewer than 20.

It's even worse during 5-on-5 play as Buffalo is again dead last with a paltry six goals in the 10 games. The Rangers, by contrast, are the leaders in both categories at home with 51 goals overall and 35 at 5 on 5 in their 14 games at Madison Square Garden.

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma admitted his team has not benefitted much from the home fans this season and that's mostly been his club's fault.

"We've got to do something to get them into the game," Bylsma said. "I know Jack is one of those guys that gets everybody off their feet when he has the puck and touches the puck. That was the case last year. A lot of the excitement in the building came from that anticipation of Jack having the puck and making a play and his speed and how dynamic Jack is with the puck. We need to have Jack do that to get our fans into the game tonight."

In 41 home games last season, Eichel had 15 goals and 14 assists while piling up 134 shots on goal and averaging 19 minutes, 32 seconds per game. He had five goals and five assists in the last nine home games last year.

Eichel played 17:08 in his season debut, Tuesday's 5-4 win in Ottawa -- compiling 6:21 in the first period, 5:57 in the second and 4:50 in the third. He played 13:44 at even strength and 3:24 on the power play. He showed no signs of any impact from the high ankle sprain he suffered on the eve of the season opener that cost him the first 21 games of his season.

"It's really more managing his time on ice and shift length," Bylsma said. "The first period he had a ton of adrenalin and a ton of gas. The second period, he had a long shift where he broke his stick, got stuck out there and I thought it affected his endurance for the rest of that period.

"The third period we kept him out of a couple situations like D-zone faceoff draws and gave other guys other opportunities. That's just kind of monitoring where he's at conditioning wise and game shape wise. I'd love to see that keep growing as we go along."

The Rangers have been the NHL's highest-scoring team all season. Eichel didn't score against them last season but had four assists in the three games.

"The Rangers like to open it up and play hockey and that's what I like," Eichel said. "I'm just looking forward to a good test for us. They're a No. 1 team and we've got to find ways to get points at home."

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