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Burden of captaincy, Sabres' struggles not slowing Jack Eichel's play

While his Buffalo Sabres teammates filtered out of the visitors' dressing room in Toronto's Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night, Jack Eichel sat at his stall waiting for reporters to finish speaking with Jason Pominville.

Eichel, the 22-year-old captain, has made himself available to the media all season, no matter the result. Since a 10-game win streak ended, Eichel has fielded questions about the team's continued defensive lapses and a number of epic meltdowns. In addition, he has had to try to explain the Sabres' inability to win consecutive games since Dec. 13.

The responsibility of leading a young team or answering post-game questions during trying times can wear on the NHL's most experienced players, yet Eichel has continued to flourish on the ice.

"He’s a special player, a special person," Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, an alternate captain, said following practice Wednesday. "He’s done a lot of really good things for this city and this organization. People tend to forget he’s only 22. He’s got a lot on his plate, a lot on his shoulders for a young guy. He’s handled it well. I think at times it’s been tough, but he brings his play every night – his effort, his attitude. He really wants to win."

Eichel has done his part in trying to revive the Sabres. His 25 goals are one off from setting a career high, and he already has achieved his best totals in assists (47) and points (72) with 16 regular-season games to play.

He joined Rick Martin and Thomas Vanek as the only players in franchise history to score at least 20 goals in each of their first four seasons. Eichel is the first Sabres player to record at least 45 assists since Tim Connolly in 2009-10.

Eichel's play hasn't slipped during this final attempt at a playoff push, either. He has seven goals among 10 points in his last eight games, a grueling stretch that included contests against Tampa Bay, Washington, Pittsburgh and Toronto.

"Jack’s been good all year," Pominville said. "He’s been awesome in the room. His attitude has been great. He’s been leading the way on the ice. He’s been leading the way off the ice. He’s so young still. The upside is still tremendous. He’s going to keep growing. He’s going to keep getting better."

Eichel has multiple goals in two of his last four games and has points in eight of his last nine. His production has been steady aside from three goals in a 15-game stretch after missing three games because of an upper-body injury.

In addition to being fueled by desperation, Eichel attributed a subtle adjustment to helping his scoring touch during this recent surge. His 252 shots on goal ranked fifth in the NHL entering Wednesday's games. However, his 9.9 shooting percentage ranked 76th among 106 players who had at least 150 shots on goal.

So, Eichel now is aiming lower while quickening his release.

"I probably haven’t been the most consistent scorer this year," he acknowledged. "I think I’ve probably passed up too many opportunities to shoot the puck at times. As of recent, it’s been, for one, I’ve tried to shoot a lot more, and I think it’s not always about how hard it is. I’ve been trying to just shoot lower and release the puck quicker, surprise goalies a little bit. I think it’s been working. You can’t score, obviously, if you miss the net, so just trying to fine-tune that, I guess."

Inside the NHL: Winnipeg standout Mark Scheifele has developed friendship with Eichel

Health is another factor in Eichel's continued rise. He missed 36 games because of injury over the previous two seasons, often stifling any sort of progress. Experience has taught him how to better prepare for the grueling NHL schedule.

Eichel, who is completing the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, has not played in the Stanley Cup playoffs and endured a 25-win season last year. He has yet to experience a .500 season in Buffalo.

His teammates and coach Phil Housley say the losing has not changed Eichel's demeanor on or off the ice. He was a catalyst in the Sabres' win streak in November and has become a dynamic two-way player, a fact illustrated by Housley trusting him to be on the ice to kill penalties.

"Jack’s done a terrific job," Housley said. "He leads by example every day, whether it’s in practice or games. His energy, guys feed off it. There’s a level of maturity right now in him, and he’s doing a really good job of just managing that part. It’s got to be difficult when you’re not getting results, but you’re trying your darndest to get the results. It’s great for him, the way he’s leading right now, especially with our group."

The Sabres did not have a captain last season, instead relying on a leadership group that included Eichel. He vowed to not change since his approach in previous seasons earned the trust of General Manager Jason Botterill and Housley.

There has been no shortage of adversity during his fourth season. Eichel spoke elegantly when Patrik Berglund left the team unexpectedly in December, expressed confidence in his teammates during another ugly stretch in January and has refused to blame inexperience for the slide.

The Sabres (30-28-8) are in danger of becoming only the second team in NHL history to not make the playoffs in the same season in which they won 10 games in a row. If that is weighing on Eichel, he is not showing it. His is focused on doing his part to ensure they aren't on the wrong side of history.

"Obviously, I think every year you try to take the next step and last year I thought there were a lot of good things, but it’s tough when you miss 17 games with injury," Eichel said. "This year, it was important for me to try to stay healthy as much as I could and be in the lineup as much as I could. It’s a long year. It’s a physical game. It takes a toll on you. I try to be as consistent every night as I can."

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