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In battle of big hits, Jack Eichel offers some rare Sabres pushback

DENVER — Jack Eichel took a big hit and gave one back Saturday. He was still dishing out in the dressing room after the game, too.

The word has been out on the Buffalo Sabres for several weeks. Take them physically. Work Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, in particular, to grind the Sabres down. There's not going to be a whole lot of response. Who on this roster, especially among the forwards, has that kind of grit and sandpaper in their game?

In the aftermath of Saturday's 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Pepsi Center, it's clear that Eichel is getting fed up with his team's passive nature. The dressing room doors were closed a few minutes longer than normal and when they were open, Eichel was sitting and waiting for the media to get a few things off his chest.

After taking a high, late drilling into the boards from Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov in the first period, Eichel clobbered Avs center Carl Soderberg with an illegal check to the head late in the second period. It's conceivable Eichel could be facing his first career hearing with the NHL's Department of Player Safety.

[Related: Jack Eichel facing NHL hearing for head hit against Avalanche]

Replays appeared to show Eichel "picking" Soderberg's head on the play in the neutral zone with just less than 5 1/2 minutes left in the second period. It's not unlike the play that resulted in a two-game suspension last month for Edmonton star Connor McDavid against New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy.

"You've just got to play physical," Eichel said. "I mean, it's a physical game, right? That's it. That's all it is. Finish your checks. Other teams like to do it to us. I don't see why we don't do it back. Everyone can finish a check and make it hard on the other team."

Sabres coach Phil Housley didn't think Eichel would get any look from the league on his hit.

"I'm not concerned at all," Housley said. "The first call against Zadorov, the whistle goes and it's a hit to the head and we only come out with a two-minute power play."

The Avalanche, of course, had their opinion as well.

"He comes from across the rink and all he gets was his head," Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of Eichel. The officials "are watching it live and some guys may be looking in the opposite direction. But now that I look at it, it's a bad hit. It's all head."

Eichel pleaded innocence on his hit.

"I thought he was just reaching. I don't know. I'd have to look at it, to be honest with you," Eichel said. "I'm trying to protect myself. It's a physical game. I think he's going to deliver a hit to me.

"It seems like they were taking runs a little bit at times. If I'm going to be at the forefront of it, I might as well push back a little bit. I've got to protect myself."

Eichel was aggravated by the hit he took along the boards from Zadorov, which was clearly after a whistle for offsides. Zadorov, the former Buffalo first-round draft pick traded here for Ryan O'Reilly in 2015, got plenty of head too and even punctuated it by ripping off Eichel's helmet.

"He hits me after they (bleeping), excuse my language, blow the whistle," a disgusted Eichel said. "That’s whatever."

The closest player to Zadorov was Casey Nelson, who did his best Paul Gaustad impression by skating to Zadorov, standing in front of him and not doing much else. Credit, however, to the rest of the Sabres on the ice.

Marco Scandella charged over, grabbed Zadorov by the face and pulled him down. Sam Reinhart came flying in throwing punches in the pile and Jeff Skinner sprinted toward the fray as well but was cut off by Avs winger Mikko Rantanen, so Skinner engaged him briefly to earn a roughing call.

"I'm trying to get over there as fast as I can," Reinhart said. "The whistle clearly goes. Trying to get as many shots in on him as I can at that point.

"I really didn't like the hit," Skinner said. "Everyone on the ice didn't like the hit and there was a little bit of a scrum."

Housley didn't want to go into any deep discussion about the Sabres' physicality or lack thereof. But this really started in earnest with the 1-0 loss Jan. 30 in Dallas, as the Stars worked over Dahlin quite a bit. Oddly enough, Dallas comes to town Tuesday for the Sabres' next game.

Buffalo has to be better than it was in this one. There was no pushback generated by the Zadorov-Eichel hit. The Sabres had nine shots on goal in the first 53 minutes of play and were outshot for the game, 43-18, in one of their most moribund offensive showings of the season.

Nathan MacKinnon had a goal and two assists for Colorado, which played its first game without injured captain and 33-goal scorer Gabriel Landeskog.

"For sure it's frustrating, everyone should be frustrated," Reinhart said. "Everyone should be a little embarrassed at this point."

The Sabres fell to 30-29-9 overall and 2-8-2 in the last 12 games. Asked if there has to be an appeal to personal pride over what's left over a now-lost season, Reinhart didn't dispute the thought.

"You start talking there's 14-15 games left, it drags out in a hurry when things don't go your way," Reinhart said. "As narrow as you can keep your focus, just do what you can on any given day. As soon as you start viewing it as 14 games left, efforts like this add up in a hurry."

Sobering thought, indeed.

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