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Mike Harrington: Patriot Way a model for Eichel

Growing up in Boston, Jack Eichel has seen a lot of winning in his 20 years. Just since he turned 5, the Red Sox snapped their much-ballyhooed curse to win three World Series, the Bruins ended a 39-year title drought to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and the Celtics won their 17th NBA title in 2008.

But there's little question the most impressive run going in the four major sports is owned by the New England Patriots. Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday will be their seventh in that span. Four other seasons ended in losses in the AFC Championship Game.

Eichel, as you would imagine, is an unabashed fan. He's been on the sidelines at New Era Field watching Tom Brady & Co. up close. But Eichel has advanced past pure fandom now. The professional athlete in him has been taking notes.

"I really take a lot from them," the Sabres center said as we chatted Saturday morning in KeyBank Center. "Look at their organization. First and foremost, there's nobody bigger than the team. They just traded their best defensive player away this year because he wanted too much money. Traded him in the middle of the season for a third-round pick and they're still in the Super Bowl? What does it say about their organization that you can do that?"

The reference is to linebacker Jamie Collins, who was sent to Cleveland for a third-rounder in October and was known to be complaining about wanting Von Miller money going forward. Not how the Patriots do it. It's not about the name on the back of the jersey.

"It's everything about them," Eichel said. "They're so detailed, so dialed in from the owner to the coach to all the players. They're all on the same page all the time, all prepared for the game in the right way. It's a winning attitude. They expect to win and there's nothing less than winning for them."

The Sabres, of course, have struggled mightily with the winning thing in recent years. Saturday's full-marks, 4-0 victory over Ottawa was just their 100th in the last 3 1/2 seasons. They've lost 197. That's a heap-ton of losing. General Manager Tim Murray made it a point to emphasize the need to keep improving a "winning culture" when he talked Thursday to both The News and WGR Radio in separate interviews.

Eichel agrees.

"We're working on that, really working trying to take steps in the right direction every day," he said. "Everyone brings their own experience to the team and we understand that. We just have to put it together for it to translate to wins on the ice.

"You can say all you want in the room, do all you want in here. If you don't go on the ice and play, then what is there? You have a mouth. It's important if you're going to be vocal, you have to go out there and play well. That applies to me, to everybody."

An organization like the Patriots, of course, has a massive target on its back. Deflategate has made the Pats as hated as the New York Yankees ever were in the late '70s or late '90s. Probably more.

"They do a really good job of keeping distractions out of their building and there's been a lot of them," Eichel said. "There's so many distractions in a league like that. Think of how big the NFL is, how big the Patriots are. It's the NFL. The number of distractions from day to day, week to week and season to season in their case. They find a way to always block them out. It's so admirable, to say the least."

Coach Dan Bylsma, a Michigan native who honed his craft in Pittsburgh, said he's no fan of the Pats as a team. But he certainly respects how they persevere too.

"I am a fan of what they've done and what they've built with their program, with their coach with great players like Tom Brady," he said. "It's the best of our time and it's lasted a long time with them building a culture of how they play, what they do. It doesn't really matter who they do it with. They get guys to come in, play the 'Patriot Way' and it's pretty remarkable to see their success over the period of time they've had."

Eichel was flying at stages of Saturday's game and said he's well past his high ankle sprain that cost him the season's first 21 games. The Sabres are 7-0-1 this year when Eichel scores a goal (losing only at Chicago in overtime) and 10-3-1 when he registers a point. He had two assists Saturday.

"I've felt good in the back to backs with the exception of the Islanders game," he said, referring to Buffalo's 5-1 clunker in Brooklyn two days before Christmas. "I don't think too many guys felt good that night. It was the end of a long run of games and a skid. Other than that, I've been good and I've done a good job preparing myself for the next game and getting my body ready."

Eichel scooted around Erik Karlsson to create a first-period opportunity for Marcus Foligno, fed Cody Franson for a good chance later in the period and undressed the Senators defense before shooting wide on a second-period rush. Eichel's pass to Sam Reinhart created the space for his fellow No. 2 overall pick to bang home the Sabres' third goal early in the third.

The Sabres improved to 5-0-1 in their last six games at home, which bodes well for a February that sees them here seven more times this month.

"We're playing more confident, showing that feeling," said Eichel, who has 13 points in his 14 home games this season. "We want to turn this place into a building that opposing teams don't like to come into and one we thrive in. You can't do that if you don't get results. You have to win before those things happen."

The Sabres return here Tuesday for a very intriguing showdown with defending Western Conference champion San Jose. Before that, they practice Sunday morning before heading to New Jersey for Monday's game against the Devils. Sunday night, by the way, is already filled on Eichel's calendar.

Said Eichel with a smile as sly as the one Brady likes to give: "I'm sure I'll find a TV somewhere."


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