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Even without goals, Eichel's game keeps evolving to new levels

NASHVILLE — There was something unfair about seeing Jack Eichel sprawled on his belly unable to do anything about the overtime goal that beat the Buffalo Sabres Friday night in Sunrise, Fla.

Sure, Eichel lost Aleksander Barkov for just a split-second, and that was long enough for the Florida Panthers star to beat Linus Ullmark and hand the Sabres a 3-2 defeat. Eichel turned his head, took a bad route in front of the net and perhaps should have instead followed Barkov behind the goal.

"I thought I had him," said a down-in-the-mouth Eichel, still clad in his equipment late Friday night. "But [Jonathan] Huberdeau makes a nice pass and Barkov gets lost behind the net and scores a goal, so it's on me."

Fair. But it's nonetheless hard to indict Eichel for that goal given the way he's played this season.

In an odd year where Eichel seemingly can't put the puck in the net at all — with just five goals in the Sabres' 27 games — opinion both inside and outside the Buffalo dressing room is that this might be his most complete season to date.

"He's a special player. He keeps getting better and better. He's at a whole different level than he was even a year ago," San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said when he was in Buffalo last week. "Young players have a tendency to do that, to jump leaps and bounds kind of year to year at least early in their career. I think he's taken a couple big steps from when he first came in."

Eichel has 27 assists and 32 points in his 27 games this year. In his first year as Buffalo's captain, he entered Saturday tied with Washington's Nicklas Backstrom for ninth in the NHL in scoring and alone in fourth in assists, five shy of league leader Mikko Rantanen of Colorado.

"He's contributing. He's No. 1 on our team in ice times among forwards, playing in a lot of situations," said Sabres coach Phil Housley. "It says a lot about him and his maturity that the most important thing about him is winning right now."

No doubt. Eichel poured in 73 goals in his first three NHL seasons and the Sabres didn't win a thing. Lots of his numbers this year are eye-popping and they've helped the Sabres go 17-7-3, including a 10-game winning streak that turned heads around the league:

• With Jeff Skinner taking full advantage on the left wing, Eichel has already equaled his career high of 20 assists at even strength after just 27 games. He reached that number last year while playing 67 games.

• Eichel is averaging 6.2 shot attempts and 4.0 on goal per game, but is getting foiled by a career-low shooting percentage of 4.6 that almost certainly has to improve. Eichel has not shot below 9.6 percent in his previous three seasons.

• His Corsi rating, measuring his team's shots for and against while he's on the ice, is at a career high 50.5 percent at 5 on 5 — and just over 58 percent in all situations.

• Eichel's plus-minus rating was a combined minus-54 in his first three seasons, but is plus-5 this year.

• His faceoff percentage, which was 38.9 percent two years ago and 41.5 last year, is up to 47.7.

• He's even 2 for 3 in shootouts this year after entering the season just 1 for 9. That's one reason the Sabres are 3-0 in the skills competition, garnering three key extra points.

Inside the NHL: A long winning streak doesn't guarantee a big finish to a season

"There's been a lot of good in my games recently and I'm trying to become better all over the ice," Eichel said during a break in the Sabres' Florida roadie. "I'm taking more pride in the faceoff circle, being better in our own zone. There's been so many guys that have stepped up, it's been a real effort. It's all about moving my feet skating."

There are times in games when opponents simply can't get the puck away from Eichel. The Sabres controlled it for the first 1:45 of overtime Friday night, largely with Eichel in charge. He's been strong down low, strong on the cycle and stronger than ever on the back check.

He simply overpowered San Jose's Tomas Hertl in the Buffalo zone during overtime Tuesday, stealing the puck and bursting down the ice for a scoring chance. In Friday's game, he made an ugly turnover in the neutral zone midway through the second period and powered back down the ice to dive and knock the puck away from Evgenii Dadonov in the slot.

"The more I have the puck, the better I am," Eichel said. "This stretch has been good. You want to see more goals go in. I'm getting the chances, creating a lot, but you just try to bear down when you're around the net. It's a tough league to score in. But you can't really complain. 'Skinny' has been cleaning up a lot and I'm just trying to distribute the puck."

The issue of Eichel's goals is a touchy one. He doesn't care and he probably shouldn't when you consider he's on a pace for 82 assists and 97 points. But the Sabres did throw an entire season to get him and are paying him $10 million a season.

Given that, can they really afford to get only 15 goals from him? Strangely enough, the answer might be yes if Skinner remains on a 60-goal pace playing on Eichel's left wing and Eichel continues to develop his two-way game as rapidly as he has.

"Like anyone on your team, the more you see them practice, you get to be around them every day, you get to appreciate what they bring to the table," Skinner said. "Obviously he brings a lot with the skill he has. He's still pretty young, so he's going to get better."

Housley said Eichel's maturity has grown considerably in the 18 months he's been around him. Organizational insiders and media members who have been around Eichel since he arrived in 2015 can vouch for the dramatic transformation of his personality as well, from often-petulant teen to mature leader of the room.

It's what the Sabres hoped for and expected when Eichel was drafted and, frankly, is what you hope for when moving from 18-year-old to 22-year-old in any walk of life.

"He's really taken the captaincy to heart," Housley said. "He's done a terrific job leading by example. But the biggest thing for me is his 200-foot game at both ends of the ice. When he's down low defending and being tough to play against, he can kill [opponents'] cycles. He's attacking the game with his speed. … When he's playing a 200-foot game, there's not many guys better than him."

The captaincy is an added layer to Eichel's game. Footage on NBC in the run-up to last season's Winter Classic showed Eichel as a veritable chatterbox in the dressing room between periods. That's continued this year.

"The player that he is, he demands that respect with what he brings on a nightly basis," said Sam Reinhart, again thriving on Eichel's right wing with five points in the last three games. "Some guys probably wouldn't be as vocal but lead by example. He's talking quite a bit in the room, which is good. Everyone leads in their own way but that's how we feed off him."

Eichel was a key cog in the players' leadership group meeting over the summer, with the team keeping a text network buzzing, and even with a golf meeting with Housley and some of the players in July in Minnesota.

Then Eichel came to Buffalo earlier than ever, with the calendar just past mid-August, to start skating at HarborCenter. He was setting a tone for the entire organization, from veterans to prospects.

"I just try to come in, work, have a good attitude every day. Be happy at the rink," he said. "If something needs to be said, maybe I say it, but other than that I think there's so many good leaders in the room, it's a pretty easy job. I just usually bounce ideas off other guys and get their advice. It's coming to work, making sure I'm prepared every day to play and putting my best foot forward. That's the first step to creating a winning culture."

"It's the story of a kid who's bigger, faster, stronger than everybody his whole life and now you're learning to really play with other guys at this level," DeBoer said. "He's dominant, dangerous every time he's on the ice. You can't use one line or one 'D' pair to stop him."

• • •

The Sabres were off Saturday. They'll practice here Sunday afternoon and meet the Nashville Predators Monday night at 8 in Bridgestone Arena. They'll then have a quick turnaround for a home game Tuesday against Toronto in KeyBank Center.

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