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Eichel's State of the Sabres casts pall over holiday break

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Jack Eichel was calm, direct and to the point late Saturday night. No ranting and raving, no rolling of the eyes. Dare we say he was captain-like?

In the wake of a dispiriting 4-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in PNC Arena, a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score might indicate, Eichel laid bare what had just transpired with a Buffalo Sabres team that has won twice in a row exactly one time in the first 36 games of this season. And that came all the way back in October.

The Sabres played a passionless opening shift, falling behind 33 seconds into the game on Sebastian Aho's goal and never catching up. It was a futile chase-from-behind all night as Buffalo slipped to 9-20-7 at the Christmas break and remains mired in last place in the Eastern Conference.

"I think it shows a lack of maturity as a group for us right now with the position that we're in," Eichel told The Buffalo News. "We played last night. We're traveling, we're in a back to back. They're here and ready and waiting for us. They're at home right before break. You know they're going to come out and play hard. And from the first shift, we're chasing the game.

"We talked about playing a simple game, getting pucks in and going north with everything and I thought we did the complete opposite of that. We took a lot of penalties, put ourselves in bad positions. When we had a little momentum or got a goal, it felt like we gave something else back."

The game started with Jordan Staal easily blowing past Johan Larsson into the Buffalo zone. Larsson, Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo never got possession, and defensemen Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian couldn't either. Goaltender Chad Johnson took one drive from Tuevo Teravainen off his mask and the puck eventually worked to the slot, where Aho drove it home as neither Larsson or Bogosian, who was down on a knee, could get to the shooter or stop the shot.

"We understand this team likes to come out and establish territory right away and we weren't ready to play," said coach Phil Housley. "I'm not saying everybody in the room but with our team, everybody has to contribute, pull on the rope and be ready to play. And as you saw on the first shift, we weren't."

The prevailing emotion in  the Sabres' room was sympathy for Johnson, who made 34 saves but fell to 1-6-3 on the season. And Johnson, remember, totaled 40 wins the last two years for the Sabres and Calgary.

"At some point we need to learn from it a little bit and grow up as a group," Eichel said. "We knew they were going to come out hard and we come out in the first shift, give up a goal and leave our goalie out to dry. That's bad. We weren't ready to play for him. Battles, compete level, execution. None of it was there."

"I don't know what to say right now. It's been a tough year all year for me," said a somber Johnson. "I don't know what to say to be honest. ... I'm trying to stay positive right now. Obviously I know where I'm at individually and where we are as a team."

The stat sheet after this one was ugly and really belied the final score.

The Hurricanes had a 38-22 advantage in shots on goal and a huge 71-35 margin in shot attempts. Those figures were bloated by Carolina's three-goal second period, during which it outshot the Sabres, 18-6.

Even more stark was the Hurricanes' 45-15 destruction of the Sabres in the faceoff circle, a true measure of the absence of Ryan O'Reilly. The NHL's individual faceoff leader at 61.9 percent, O'Reilly left the team earlier in the day to return home for the birth of his son. Eichel was just 2-14 in the circle.

"They're the No. 1 team in the league for a reason," Housley said of the Canes' NHL-best 52.9 percent rate. "And when you start without possession, especially on the road, it makes it difficult. All the dots on the ice, we just didn't do a very good job. Obviously Ryan is a very big part of that."

Eichel assisted on both Buffalo goals, the first of the season by defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and No. 2 by Zemgus Girgensons -- who had not scored in 25 games. That's five goals and three assists for Eichel in the last four games and a 6-7-13 output in his last 10 games.

"You want the team results and that's what it's about," Eichel said. "I think my game is really coming along. I'm moving my feet better, getting shots and making plays. But we have a long way to go as a group, myself included. There's a lot of things I have to get better at."

The Sabres have lots of time to think about this one before returning to action Wednesday against the New York Islanders. That's the start of a three-game New York City trip capped by the Jan. 1 Winter Classic. And you know they don't want the eyes of the hockey world to see these kind of performances.

"We knew what to expect tonight and still weren't ready to go," Eichel said. "It's all about reflection now. Like Coach told us, we've got to look in the mirror here. That was a big game for us to try to win two in a row. Now we have three or four days to think about it. Not good enough."

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