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Eichel, Sabres punch out Maple Leafs and their fans

With both arms and one leg up during an emphatic celebration, Jack Eichel glided toward the boards. All he saw were Maple Leafs fans.

His punch of the glass told them they were in the wrong place on the wrong night.

“When you see that many Toronto people down here watching their team, it was almost like they overtook our building a little bit,” Eichel said Saturday. “I just want to defend it and do as much as we can to get the win.”

Eichel and the Sabres did more than enough to defend KeyBank Center. They pounded the Leafs, 5-2, silencing the Toronto backers who were shouting, “Go, Leafs, go” well before the puck dropped.

“This is our building, so obviously want to play well here,” Eichel said. “There was a little bit extra emotion in our game, a little bit extra intensity. It’s good to see. We always like to play against them. It’s obviously a rival, and nice to beat them.”

Buffalo fans have embraced the rivalry with Toronto since 1970. The Sabres have undergone massive roster turnover during the past few seasons, but nights like Saturday have quickly shown them what it means to play their northern neighbors.

“It was nice to get a taste of what this building can be,” center Ryan O’Reilly said.

“Right before the puck dropped, it was so loud in there,” left wing Tyler Ennis said. “We were skating around and were saying, ‘Let’s go tonight. This should be a fun one. These are the best ones. Let’s have some fun.’

“When you get energy and you’re having fun, you play with another level. We played with that extra level, and we showed what we could do.”

The Sabres built a 2-1 lead after one period and extended it to 5-2 after two. In a season littered with third-period letdowns, they shut the door on Toronto.

“The crowd was amazing,” defenseman Dmitry Kulikov said. “It’s a lot of fun when the crowd is going and you can feel the buzz in the building.”

Plenty of players provided the buzz. Eichel had two goals and an assist, while Ennis, O’Reilly, Kulikov and Kyle Okposo had two-point nights.

Quick hits: Sabres 5, Maple Leafs 2

The Sabres scored the final three goals of the second period, a frame that has often been their undoing.

“We took to them for a while and played in their end,” Eichel said. “We played a lot more aggressive, and I think that’s what we need to do. Our D were coming down the walls. Our forwards were making their D turn pucks over. We had some good contributions.”

Two contributions were a long time coming. Ennis, whose last two seasons have been interrupted by concussions and sports hernia/groin surgery, had his first multipoint game since Oct. 24, 2015. He has points in two of three games since being promoted to the top line.

“I’ve been playing more, and I’ve been playing with some good players,” said Ennis, who skated with O’Reilly and Okposo. “You put those two things together – ice time and two players – and the goals are going to come and the chances are going to come, and the wins are coming.”

Kulikov had one goal and one assist in his opening 39 games. He matched that in a span of 3:12 during the second period. His assist was a power-play pass onto the stick of Eichel for a massive one-timer.

“As soon I got the puck, I took a look and he was wide-open,” Kulikov said. “It was a no-brainer to just give him the puck for a one-timer.”

Eichel skated to the boards after his second goal, the knockout punch that made it 5-2. He has 23 goals, 30 assists and 53 points in 54 games.

About the only thing missing Saturday night was a hat trick – Buffalo hasn’t had one at home since Thomas Vanek on April 5, 2011 – but there were enough highlights. Besides, the Leafs come back to town April 3. There needs to be something left to taunt their fans.

“It was a fun game to play,” Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner said. “We don’t want them to win here. We play them one more time here, and we want to win that, too. We don’t wish them any success.”

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