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Eichel looks for more success as he goes West

SAN JOSE -- The evolution of Jack Eichel's career continues to include several checkpoints. The next one starts here Tuesday night.

One of the low stages of Eichel's rookie season came nearly 13 months ago when he went pointless in three straight games on the West Coast. With Ryan O'Reilly out due to injury, Eichel was Buffalo's No. 1 center on the trip through Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles and dealt with veterans at every turn.

He was hounded by Ryan Kesler of the Ducks, harrassed by Logan Couture and Joe Thornton of the Sharks and equally stymied in LA by Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar. It was quite an education for Eichel as the Sabres posted a 3-1 win in San Jose but were shut out in the other two games.

Eichel meets the Sharks here again Tuesday, then moves on to Los Angeles Thursday and Anaheim Friday. And he said he's looking forward to making quite a bit more impact on this trip than he did last year.

"It was definitely a little bit of a learning curve for me last year, no doubt," Eichel told The News after practice Monday in SAP Center. "Now I'm playing with more confidence. You're a year older, playing better and feeling better about my game. To me, I'm not even close to the player I was a year ago. I feel like I'm almost a completely different player. I'm looking forward to three tough games. Good players. Good opponents. A real good test for our team and for myself.

"It's a next step for him and his career," added coach Dan Bylsma. "I agree with Jack. He's a different player now than when we stepped out here last year. It's going to be a test and one I'm interested to see Jack go through."

With 19 goals and 47 points in 48 games, Eichel has emerged as nearly a point-a-game player this season. But he's erupted since Feb. 1 with seven goals and 19 assists in 20 games. Entering Monday's play, Eichel's assist total and his 26 points led the NHL in that span, two points ahead of Chicago star and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane.

"I'm more rounded, feeling better in areas than I did last year," Eichel said. "One thing is I'm really able to slow the game down a lot more, I'm more dynamic on my backhand and I understand the game at this level a lot better. It takes time to learn the NHL game. It's not easy. It doesn't happen overnight.

"This year has been a huge step forward for me in terms of understanding hockey. You're just trying to bring that consistency more often, being aware of what type of game you're going into, knowing how you'll have to play against that team. Sometimes you have to let the game come to you and take what it gives. I'm better on the forecheck, getting more pucks back. I'm more physical, more tenacious and that opens up the offensive side."

One thing Bylsma noted was how well Eichel played in Friday's 4-3 loss at Columbus -- the game Eichel's career-high 11-game point streak was snapped.

"Along a streak of 11 games, you get a point here or point there that gets tacked on," Bylsma said. "The game in Columbus he was really good, very good in that game. He was a part of a goal he didn't get the assist on and he had plenty of opportunity himself."

Bylsma said he's marveled at all Eichel has had to deal with since entering the NHL as an 18-year-old and now advancing to age 20. Eichel has 103 points in his first 129 NHL games. In Sabres history, only Pierre Turgeon and Hall of Famer Phil Housley reached 100 points at a younger age.

"You're maturing, you're growing up. The spotlight is on you. People talk about you," Bylsma said. "There's comparisons to this guy and that guy. When you hiccup, it's the end of the world. When you don't score a goal, you're not on pace. What was I like at 18? I was buried in my freshman year at Bowling Green with no one looking. It's a lot for a young kid go go through. He's going through it with a lot of maturity. He's evolved into a different player."

Eichel started a new point streak with two points in the final 2 1/2 minutes Saturday against Columbus. He fed Evander Kane for the tiebreaking goal with 2:29 left and then added an empty net goal to complete the Sabres' 5-3 win in a game that saw them down, 3-0, after the first period.

"You don't play as well as you want against a good team and they make you pay. That's what happened there," Eichel said. "It's 3-0 and that's what we deserved. But then we brought a lot more emotion into the game, got more invested into it. We've been on the other side of that one so it was nice to be on the winning side this time.

"It would be nice if we brought that type of intensity and emotion to more games. It doesn't need to be 3-0, 4-1 or whatever for that to happen. We want it to be right off the bat."

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