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Mike Harrington: Sabres, city need Captain Jack now more than ever

SAN JOSE -- Jack Eichel says he's reaching a comfort zone as a captain. Over the next 2 1/2 months, we're going to see how much impact he can have to correct course for his skidding team.

The All-Star break has come at an excellent time for the Sabres, who have careened from the top of the NHL to out of the playoffs in just 23 games. But Eichel was upbeat here Thursday night at All-Star Media Day. He loves the chance to compete against -- and with -- the game's best, so he's going to enjoy the weekend. Probably collect more souvenirs and autographs to add to his collection.

But come Tuesday night in Columbus, the Sabres will be back to work. They're not far out of things, just four points from a playoff spot with 34 games left. And they have a seven-game homestand coming up in February, good news for a team that's 14-6-3 in KeyBank Center.

The Captain has a pretty good idea what needs to change.

"We've been bringing it on a consistent game basis but it's more of a shift-in and shift-out thing with us it seems," Eichel said at City National Civic Auditorium. "Every team has lapses and I feel like right now almost all of our bad shifts and mistakes have been ending up in the back of our net at really costly times in games.

"At the beginning of the year, we were on the positive side of things and now we're on the negative side, losing one-goal games we should be winning and getting points in. We knew the second half would be more competitive. We have to dig deeper, be crisper. we can't have these lapses. You see all our games. It's really a fine line between winning and losing and we're already seeing that in the second half."

Jeff Skinner has been a revelation with 30 goals and Rasmus Dahlin has been every bit as good as hoped for an 18-year-old defenseman -- and probably better at times. Carter Hutton looked like a free agent steal in goal for two months and now needs to find his game again.

But the Sabres are about Eichel. They thrived when he spent roughly the first 35 games or so having a slice of the Hart Trophy discussion. They've struggled since, when he's either been out of the lineup injured or simply a non-factor in some games.

Eichel leads the Sabres with 16 goals and 52 points in the 45 games he's played. At that pace, assuming he finishes at 79 games played, he would have a 28-goal, 91-point season.

But Eichel's pace has slowed considerably in recent games, with just one goal and two assists over the last seven games he's played. He didn't register a point in the final two games of the 2018 portion of the schedule, playing just four shifts on New Year's Eve against the Islanders before an upper-body injury kept him out of the lineup for the rest of that night and the first three games of 2019.

He wasn't much better when he returned. Eichel had no points in his first three games back, including a minus-2 night in that hideous 7-2 loss at Edmonton, before scoring the overtime winner in Calgary and then assisting on a Sam Reinhart goal in Vancouver.

Eichel feels he can regain his touch and said he felt the Calgary goal was a huge bounceback for him.

"It was really big, to be honest with you," he said. "It was a big goal for a team and a big win for our team after not liking the way we had played in Edmonton. We thought we played a really good team game against Calgary and we can learn a lot about that, with the resiliency we showed.

"That was so important for me because the injury came at a tough time when I really felt I was playing good hockey. It was probably the best hockey of my career. Now it slows you down and you have to be patient. Even when you come back, you don't feel like yourself right away. I just had to stick with it and that helped me out."

Sabres roar back to beat the Flames behind Jack Eichel's OT winner

It's going to be fascinating to watch how Eichel responds the rest of the season. He hasn't had much pressure on him in his career to date. The Sabres have never played March games of consequence in Eichel's three seasons.

There is now some expectation. This team has reverse its slide and move forward. Eichel, who is tied for 26th in the league in scoring with Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux, has to live up to his $10 million contract. And now he has the mantle of the team stitched on to his sweater with that big letter  'C'

"There's not a specific leader where I said, 'Oh, I want to become him' and at the end of the day I have to become my own leader," he said. "After doing it for a few months, you're a little bit more comfortable with it. There's been so many leaders in the room and guys who have stepped up at different times. It's been a year of ups and downs for sure. We've had a stretch of really good times and right now we're going through a rough patch."

Eichel needs to come back off this break refreshed and playing like he did when the Sabres were winning. We didn't just see glimpses of great play from him. We saw MVP-caliber play.

Eichel has 19 multi-point games this season. It says here the stretch from mid-November through Christmas is the best we've seen Eichel in his four NHL seasons. He had 10 goals and 19 assists for 29 points in 19 games, tied for fourth in the league in scoring with tellow Team North America alums Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg and Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary.

"The team had some really good success early on and I think that's in part a result of his leadership," Skinner said. "He's a competitive guy who draws a lot of attention from other teams. He brings it every night and guys feed off that. ...The competitiveness drives the team."

Eichel was asked by a national reporter about the fan interaction he's noticed, with the Sabres showing improvement early in the year. He said it was eye-opening to see the crowds at home. He knows what it could be like in the playoffs -- if the Sabres can finally get there.

"You come to take for granted at times how well they treat you around the city," he said. "I always think when it's over, how many people are going to care about you? But in a city like Buffalo, they'll forever love you for being a part of their sports teams. It goes a long way."

Just imagine how much more people will love Eichel if the Sabres finally get to play some postseason hockey.

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