Jack is back. Now we see if that helps the Buffalo Sabres regain any semblance of an offense.
Captain Jack Eichel has served his two-game suspension for a check to the head and will return to the lineup Saturday night as the Sabres travel to meet the Carolina Hurricanes in PNC Arena.
At practice Friday in Harborcenter, Eichel was back to his normal spot between Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart and in his role on the team's top power-play unit.
"Whenever you miss a game, hurt, suspended, whatever it is, it's tough to sit in the press box, for sure," Eichel said. "I want to be out there competing as much as you can. It stinks not playing, but it's good that it's over and you must move past it."
"He's a big part of our team. He's our leader. He drives the bus," said coach Phil Housley. "I'm sure he's excited to get back."
Eichel returns to find a Buffalo offense in the throes of a horrific slump, the victims of three consecutive shutout defeats that have extended a season-long losing streak to six games.
"Obviously, we've had some chances but haven't capitalized," Eichel said. "So we've just got to bear down on our opportunities. The goalies in this league are good. You've got to get to the net."
"Our goal every shift is to win the shift and to obviously score goals while trying to prevent them," said defenseman Zach Bogosian. "I don't know how mental it is. Guys have to continue to put pucks in. A lot of teams have similar droughts like that and they get a lucky bounce and all of a sudden it's back to normal."
Despite Bogosian's assertion, teams generally don't have similar droughts. This is no longer a normal slump. The Sabres are approaching plenty of historic ineptitude. Consider these ghoulish facts:
- The Sabres have failed to score in a span of 197 minutes, 40 seconds since Kyle Okposo's third-period goal March 7 in Chicago.
- Thursday's 5-0 loss to Pittsburgh made the Sabres the first team in the NHL's expansion era to endure three consecutive shutouts in back-to-back seasons. It had not been done in consecutive seasons since 1929, when the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, the Pirates) and New York Rangers suffered similar fates.
- If the Sabres do not score Saturday, they will become just the sixth team in NHL history to suffer four straight shutouts. It has not been done in the expansion era since the first-year 1967-68 Oakland Seals. For those wondering, the record is eight games in a row, set by the 1928-29 Chicago Blackhawks.
The Sabres were shut out three straight times last season during the week after Thanksgiving and came within 8 minutes, 42 seconds of a fourth goose egg before Jason Pominville scored their lone goal in a 5-1 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, 2017. So the only two times it's happened in franchise history has been the last two seasons.
- The Sabres would need to get less than 15 minutes into the second period Saturday to break the club futility mark of 232 minutes, 9 seconds set during last year's drought.
"We need a goal. We'd like to get a result with that too as well," Housley said. "I think we're still at times turning away opportunities to get pucks to the net. We've just really got to simplify our game, throw everything to the net. We've got to get people going there and getting dirty and hungry to score a goal."
The drought is made even more shocking when you consider the Sabres had been having defensive troubles and not problems putting the puck in the net. In the seven games preceding this run, Buffalo had scored 23 goals and averaged 3.29 per game. The Sabres have slipped to 24th in scoring but still average 2.7 per game.
"For some guys, if it's been a while, it's just human nature that it starts to creep into your mind a bit and you're gripping your stick a little tight and thinking about it," Eichel said. "Just keep it simple. Try to get pucks to the net, bodies to the net and it's bound to go in."
The goal drought has ratcheted up the heat on Housley and added pressure in the dressing room as players try to stay motivated with no playoff berth at stake.
"We're competitors. That's the biggest thing," Eichel said. "I think everyone has something to play for here. The season is not over. We've got a big game tomorrow night against a team trying to get in the playoffs. We can play spoiler, we can play whatever you want to call it. This is about pride, about playing for the logo, playing for the guy next to you. I think that's what most important."
"I believe guys want to win in here," added Bogosian. "When things aren't going the way you like them to, it's easy to point fingers, but we have to stay together as a group, go through it as a group and grow as a group. There's not going to be one or two guys packing it in."
The Sabres have lost eight in a row to the Hurricanes, their longest current drought against any NHL team (0-5-3). They are 0-1-1 this season against the Canes, dropping a 4-3 decision Jan. 11 in Raleigh and a 6-5 overtime shootout Feb. 7 in Buffalo. The Hurricanes have scored 27 goals against Buffalo in the last six meetings.
Marco Scandella missed practice with an upper body injury, but Housley said he would make the trip to Carolina. Bogosian returned to practice and will also travel. Housley said he'll determine the lineup Saturday but practice the day before usually tells the tale, meaning Bogosian is likely in and Scandella likely out.
Vladimir Sobotka and Scott Wilson skated as extra forwards in practice Friday and are likely to be healthy scratches. Sobotka has missed six games this year due to injury, but this would be the first time he's been a healthy scratch.