There was plenty of satisfaction in reaching a personal milepost and Jack Eichel smiled when pondering the realization he played his 200th career NHL game Wednesday night.
But Eichel knows there's a lot more that has to be done to get the Buffalo Sabres out of the NHL's nether regions as well. For all his wondrous talents – and for all the numbers put up by Eichel and only surpassed by Connor McDavid among players drafted in 2015 – the Sabres are still mired in the league basement nearly three years after the Boston University star arrived on the scene.
"You look at the first 200 games and you hope the next 200 are better and you make more of an impact in terms of winning and getting the team to where you want to be," Eichel, 21, told The Buffalo News after Wednesday's 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes in KeyBank Center. "Sometimes you have to look at the positive of things. I'm fortunate to do this for a living. I don't take it for granted. I've missed a few too many games and I'm trying to play as much as I can and continue to be an impact player."
The Sabres are just 78-94-28 with Eichel in their lineup in his career. Eichel, who gave an impassioned defense after practice Tuesday about his return to action from a high ankle sprain, was active in this game but did not collect any points. He had eight shot attempts but five were blocked and he finished with none on goal for just the third time this season.
Just as most people figured three years ago, McDavid and Eichel are 1-2 in goals, assists and points among players taken in that draft. McDavid, who played No. 200 in Edmonton's win Tuesday in Carolina, has 238 points in his 200 games with 80 goals and 158 assists. Eichel has 167 points (70 goals, 97 assists).
And they're way ahead of everyone else from the Class of '15. Carolina's Sebastian Aho is third in goals with only 50 while Toronto pepperpot Mitch Marner is third in points but he's well behind Eichel at 122.
This game, however, didn't go well for the Sabres star. He got a dubious offensive zone holding penalty against Arizona defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson just 1:46 into the game and the Coyotes scored the first of their two power-play goals in the period on the penalty. The scorer? None other than rookie Dylan Strome, the former McDavid teammate with the Erie Otters who was drafted No. 3 in 2015 but has been unable to stick in the NHL. It was just his second career goal in his 19th game.
"I was a little frustrated by the first call. That was soft," Eichel said. "I'm going into the corner, a tough position with the two of us a couple feet from the boards. I'm trying to protect myself and protect him too. I don't think I held him. It was a collision where we got caught. It makes it tough when you go behind the 8-ball right from the start of the game."
The Coyotes improved to 13-5-2 in their last 20 games and pulled three points ahead of the Sabres in the battle to stay out of the NHL cellar. Arizona has 61 points, with Vancouver at 59 and Buffalo at 58.
"They work hard, they back pressure hard. They're good with their sticks," Eichel said of the Coyotes. "I felt like I had the puck a lot but there was always a guy around your hands, around your stick. It makes it tough. You've got to get rid of the puck quick and be ready to make the next play. They did a better job of that than us."
Arizona did a lot better in this game. The Sabres battled hard for 55 minutes Monday against the Nashville Predators, the league's top team. They had 35 shots on goal in the game but two late goals made for a deceptively lopsided 4-0 score. There was little of the same pushback in this game, other than Jordan Nolan's first-period goal that tied the game at 1-1.
"It was frustrating. Maybe we weren't engaged at the start as we should have been," Eichel said. "It's 2-1 after one but you really don't like the way we played. We didn't do enough to win the game. These are the type of games that the best teams find a way to be in it and win it.
"We came to compete the other night against the best team in the league but against a team that maybe doesn't have the best record and maybe isn't the strongest, we're just not on our toes as much as we should be."
Coach Phil Housley dialed back practice Tuesday to conserve energy but was agitated that he didn't get much response to his goodwill gesture Wednesday.
"That's just where we are as a group," Housley said. "We can't handle any success. By the way, we lost that game 4-0 so you'd think you'd come out gangbusters to start the game. It was a very meaningful game in that you're in last place in the league. That's what's hard to swallow. Just unacceptable."
"Not a lot of energy out there, not a lot of work, not a lot of compete," Nolan said. "It's two bottom-placed teams and there should be a little bit more pride in there."
While pride and preparation might be an issue elsewhere in the dressing room, that's not something that's an issue with Eichel.
"It's crazy. It really does go quick. It flies by," Eichel said. "At 200 games, first off I feel fortunate. Hopefully there's a couple hundred more coming quick here. I'm living out my dream playing in the NHL and I couldn't be happier with that. But we know we have a lot of work to do."