BOSTON – When Jack Eichel returns to TD Garden, he pictures himself sitting in one of the arena's gold seats next to his father, Bob, marveling over players such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby or Washington's Alex Ovechkin.
Eichel was the one fans marveled over Sunday night.
The Buffalo Sabres center scored twice and assisted on both Jeff Skinner goals, including the game-winner with 3:31 remaining in regulation, to beat the Boston Bruins, 4-2. The Sabres improved to 20-9-5 and moved into second place in the Atlantic Division with 45 points, one ahead of Toronto and seven more than the Bruins.
Buffalo's nine regulation losses are tied for the second-fewest in the NHL and it earned three of a possible four points during a two-game road trip. Eichel had help from Linus Ullmark, who made 35 saves, including 12 in the third period. Zemgus Girgensons blocked a shot to spring Eichel for the empty-net goal.
But it was the Sabres' 22-year-old captain who willed them to victory under difficult circumstances.
"For one, I think we’ve obviously been through a lot of adversity together, and I think we’re probably sick of it," said Eichel, who grew up a 40-minute drive from the Bruins' home ice and starred during his one season at Boston University. "The last few years it’s not been easy. With the way our season started this year, I think we have a lot of confidence in each other and belief. We think we can win every game we play."
This was the second game in as many nights for the Sabres, who lost to the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, 4-3, in a shootout Saturday night. Eichel and his teammates arrived in Boston late Saturday night because of a travel delay and had a quick turnaround with a 5 p.m. puck drop against the Bruins.
In addition to starting Ullmark, Buffalo shuffled its defensive pairings, recalling Brendan Guhle from Rochester and giving Matt Hunwick his first NHL game action in more than eight months. Boston, meanwhile, was 11-3 at home and regarded by some as the third-best team in the division.
While the Bruins twice came back to tie the score, they too got caught watching Eichel during his 19 minutes on the ice. After a scoreless first period, Eichel spun away from Steven Kampfer, skated to the back of the net and made a no-look backhand pass to Skinner, who scored 3:18 into the second period.
"He’s just brought his game to another level, especially under the circumstances tonight, too," coach Phil Housley said. "Like tonight, he played 24, 25 minutes last night. Comes back and plays almost 20 minutes tonight and plays at both ends. He’s attacking the game with speed offensively. He’s reloading with meaningful strides coming back into our zone. He’s playing a 200-foot game, a very complete game right now."
The Bruins tied the score two minutes later when Kampfer skated past Tage Thompson, collected a centering pass and beat Ullmark. They nearly took the lead with 11 minutes left in the period with a 2-on-1 rush; however, Eichel backchecked to break up a centering pass.
Boston appeared to take the lead three minutes later when Brad Marchand poked a loose puck past Ullmark, but it was ruled no goal and confirmed by review. Ullmark, who also stopped a penalty shot in the first, made a sensational split save 3:24 into the third to stop Danton Heinen alone in front of the net.
Then Eichel's line took over.
Rasmus Dahlin's breakout pass found Sam Reinhart in the neutral zone, and Reinhart left a drop pass to Eichel, who skated up the right wing and beat Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask with a high wrist shot 5:43 into the third period. This was Eichel's 17th multipoint game this season, which ties him for the league lead and is only one shy of his career high. He has nine goals over his last six games.
"Yeah, I saw it. I just couldn't match up his speed," Rask said. "He was coming so fast, and I don't know if I got flat-footed or what. But he's a good player. He's a quick player."
The Bruins again tied it when Torey Krug was left open in the slot with 6:39 remaining in regulation. However, the Sabres would not relent. Reinhart, who extended his point streak to 10 games, won a battle to a loose puck on the right-wing boards and passed behind the net to Eichel, who made another backhand pass in front to Skinner.
Skinner chipped it past Rask's blocker for the go-ahead goal.
"It’s nice," Skinner said with a laugh when asked of Eichel's pass. "Yeah, it’s a great pass. You just have to try and sort of create some space to get it off. He draws so much coverage to him, and he’s so good with the puck even when he’s got pressure on him. You just have to be ready, be aware and sort of try to find open space as much as you can."
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 17, 2018
Eichel had two goals and two assists in his first career NHL game in TD Garden on Dec. 26, 2015, but the Sabres were 15-16-4 and would finish that season with only 35 wins. Now, they're only five wins away from matching their total from all of last season.
"It’s great to come here after less than 24 hours, get two points and be able to move on," Eichel said.