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Mike Harrington: For Eichel, All-Star nod is perfectly timed

Jack Eichel, All-Star.

It's taken three seasons for those words to run together. But you really couldn't find a more appropriate time to say them.

Eichel is going to Tampa as the Sabres' representative to NHL All-Star Weekend Jan. 27-28 and it's the right choice. A light has really come on for the 21-year-old since Dec. 1, the night the Sabres were blanked here by Pittsburgh and suffered the indignity of a third straight shutout for the first time in franchise history.

He's skating better. He's been a beast on the backcheck. And the puck is going in the net. Looks the part of a $10 million player a few months before he actually becomes one.

"It's just a reflection of his season and where he's been," said coach Phil Housley. "It's exciting for being a young player in this league to have an oppotunity to represent your organization. It's one of the highlights right now of Jack's season and he's earned it."

Eichel was asked point-blank leading up to the Winter Classic and again in New York why his season has been on a steady climb.  He hasn't had a lot of deep theories. When the subject was broached again Thursday, Eichel had more thoughts.

"I don't know if it's anything serious," he said. "Early in the year, maybe I wasn't getting breaks, finishing my shots or capitalizing on opportunities. Statistically, It wasn't showing but I'm just trying to work shift in and shift in. Get in on the forecheck and disrupt things a little bit more. Get to the net."

After assisting on the Sabres' first goal and adding the empty netter in Thursday night's 3-1 win over Columbus, Eichel pushed his totals to 18 goals, 23 assists and 41 points in 44 games. He's on pace for 33 goals and 76 points, both career highs.

After a 16-point December that was the second-best month of his career, Eichel has slowed down some with just one point in his first five January games until Thursday. But still, he is motoring out there with a capital M. No more slouch or float in his game.

"It's a simple game if you think about it but maybe these last whatever few games have been more simple for me," he said. "Just try to get pucks to the net, use my speed and my body to create chances. Maybe earlier in the year, I was being a little fine and trying to make the perfect play. I don't really know how to account for it but I'm just trying to do my part."

Eichel will get a chance to do his part on the Atlantic Division team captained by Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. The All-Star Game, remember, will be heading into its third year as a 3-on-3 tournament, with the winning team sharing $1 million.

"I think it's exciting, brings a little more energy to the event," Eichel said. "You have something on the line, something to play for. It's money, right? I think I read somewhere yesterday that Taylor Hall has won both years in the 3-on-3 and gotten over $150,000 from winning. That's a pretty good chunk of money and you just want to have fun with it.

"It seems like the guys really enjoy the 3-on-3 and it gets pretty serious. People are more inclined to watch it if there's something on the line and there's a bit more competition."

(For the record, Eichel is right. Hall has been on the winning team in each of the first two years, with the Pacific in Nashville in 2016 and with the Metro last year in Los Angeles. Total prize for Hall: $182,000).

Eichel will also be in the All-Star Skills Competition Jan. 27. You would think he's going in the Fastest Skater competition. And, well, doesn't the league have to be hoping for Eichel vs. Connor McDavid?

"I feel like that one you have to exert a lot more energy than the other ones," Eichel said. "You might have to warm up for it too but I'd be happy to do anything."

The teams then battle the next day in 20-minute periods, with two semifinal games and the championship comprising the 60 minutes. And it's been surprising the last two years how serious the games were, especially the final.

"I hope he has a little bit better game than I did," cracked a smiling Kyle Okposo, who was minus-6 last year in Los Angeles. "I'm really happy for him. The first of many for him and he's earned it. Its a great experience, definitely a highlight of my career especially when you had the NHL100 there and seeing all those past legends. I'm going to tell him to enjoy the experience and have fun with it."

Okposo has four assists playing with Eichel the last two games. And it was bizarre to see Benoit Pouliot go from press box popcorn to wing on Eichel's line but score the first goal of the game, to validate Housley's hunch.

A player like Eichel can be as much about his own numbers as he can about elevating teammates.

Okposo is getting a first-hand look at what the phenom can do. But here's a bulletin from the veteran: Eichel is still scratching his talented surfaces.

"He's put the time in. He's really putting the effort in to try and get better," Okposo said. "But I think he still has levels he can get to and find in his game. It's nice to see him progessing and and I think he can only get better."

Eichel said he's routinely watched the All-Star Game growing up and paid close attention the last two years, when Ryan O'Reilly and Okposo were the Sabres' reps in the 3-on-3 games.

"It's going to be a huge honor," Eichel said. "It's obviously something you grow up watching and just some of the pepole that are going to be there I grew up watching and idolizing. It's a huge honor. ... I'm very fortunate to be able to represent the Sabres."

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