As yet another meaningless March moves on, one of the best reasons to watch the Buffalo Sabres these days won't be on the ice the next two games.
Captain Jack Eichel received a two-game suspension Sunday night from the NHL's Department of Player Safety for his hit on Colorado's Carl Soderberg during the second period of Saturday's 3-0 loss to the Avalanche in Denver.
Eichel will miss KeyBank Center visits by the Dallas Stars on Tuesday and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday before returning to the lineup Saturday in Carolina. Eichel has 25 goals and 72 points in 65 games and the suspension will temporarily derail his bid for his first 30-goal season.
To replace Eichel, the Sabres have called up former first-round draft pick Alexander Nylander from Rochester. It's the first callup of the year for Nylander, who has 12 goals and 19 assists in 49 games for the Amerks.
Eichel was given an "illegal check to the head" penalty at 14:48 of the second period after appearing to pick Soderberg's head as the pair was engaged in a puck battle in the neutral zone. Soderberg went down briefly on his stomach but got up and headed to the bench. He played the rest of the game and appeared to be uninjured.
According to the NHL's Department of Player Safety video released Sunday night, Eichel's suspension was largely a result of the fact that Soderberg's head was the principal point of contact on the play.
"With Soderberg reaching for the puck, Eichel cut sharply in front of him with his upper body, hitting Soderberg's head and making it the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable," the league said in its video explanation of the play.
The league ruled that Eichel could have taken a different angle on the hit and driven through Soderberg's shoulder and core rather than picking the head. The league also absolved Soderberg of contributing to the nature of the hit.
"His head and core move in a consistent manner," the DoPS said of Soderberg, "and do not suddenly and materially change position in a way that changes the nature of this hit from a full body check to one that picks the head."
The Sabres have made no comment on the suspension. They were off Sunday and will return to practice Monday.
It will be interesting to see if Nylander is getting a two-game look simply to replace Eichel or if he has a chance to stick in the NHL for a few games before returning to Rochester for the Calder Cup playoffs.
Nylander, 21, has had another mostly quiet year in Rochester but has raised eyebrows with a goal in four straight games, culminating in his tally during Saturday's 5-3 win in Binghamton.
Nylander, taken eighth overall in 2016, has played just seven NHL games the last two years with one goal and one assist.
The Sabres have 14 games left and will endure their seventh straight March when a playoff berth has not been on the line.
It's a bitter disappointment for a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2011 or even competed for a spot since going 1-3-1 in the final five games of 2012 to blow its most recent chance.
The Sabres are 2-8-2 in their last 12 games and are now only one point ahead of the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference, leaving 13th place in the East a realistic possibility.
Nine of the remaining 14 games are against teams in the playoff hunt, with the exceptions being two games apiece against Detroit and Ottawa and a trip to New Jersey.
The highlights include Ryan O'Reilly's return with the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, the March 20 visit by Toronto (which has beaten the Sabres four straight times for the first time since 1972) and the March 30 game against the New York Islanders that will see the Sabres return to the Nassau Coliseum for the first time since 2015.
Tuesday's game will be a huge one for Dallas. The Stars enter Monday holding the West's first wild card but are just one point ahead of Minnesota, two up on Arizona and three ahead of Colorado.
While the Sabres have been abysmal on the road — losing nine in a row and winning just three of their last 22 — they have been much better at home.
The Sabres are 19-10-4 this year in KeyBank Center compared to 11-19-5 on the road. Last year, they were an NHL-worst 11-25-5 at home so they've already improved by 15 points eight home games left.