With 15 former Buffalo Sabres captains standing in a circle at center ice in KeyBank Center, play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret introduced the latest cornerstone of the franchise.
Jack Eichel emerged from the tunnel to a raucous ovation, raised his stick in the air to salute the sold-out crowd of 19,070 and stood next to Gilbert Perreault for the pregame ceremony to celebrate the Sabres' 50th year in the National Hockey League.
"A moment I’ll never forget, going out there with some of those guys," Eichel beamed afterward. "Being able to stand in the same circle as them was a tremendous honor."
Eichel proceeded to have a performance that surely made his fellow captains proud. The 22-year-old finished with three points, including the Sabres' second goal, during a resounding 7-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. Four other Sabres scored at least one goal and Carter Hutton made 18 saves, giving Buffalo back-to-back wins to start the season for the first time since 2013.
Eichel led a power play that converted on each of its first three opportunities and was the catalyst to what new coach Ralph Krueger has called a new brand of Sabres hockey.
"I think we wanted to come out and show the fans what it’s going to be like this year and the type of product we want to put on the ice," Eichel said. "Get them excited for the season, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight. It’s all about consistency in this league. We just want to keep doing it every night and make this a hard place to try to come in and play."
The start of the game was delayed until 7:22 p.m., because two zambonis were forced to resurface the ice following pregame festivities. However, the Sabres said the wait only seemed to fuel their excitement. Eichel drew a holding penalty at 1:35 into the game and didn't take long to help them take the lead.
Eichel collected the puck from Rasmus Dahlin near the opposing blue line, skated toward the bottom of the right-wing circle and sent a cross-ice pass to Victor Olofsson, who scored the first of his two power-play goals with a wrist shot at 2:56 into the game.
Eichel pushed the lead to 2-0 at 17:26 into the first period, when a successful forecheck by Olofsson and a heads-up poke check by Jeff Skinner sent the puck to the slot without a Devils defender nearby. Eichel shot it into the net to beat goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.
"I knew Jack was going to have a good night tonight, that's for sure," defenseman Jake McCabe said of Eichel. "He takes a ton of pride wearing that C. He's our leader on this team. We had a good start and fed off the crowd all night."
Eichel also contributed on Olofsson's second goal, which pushed the lead to 5-1 in the second period, by signaling the rookie winger to skate toward the net on the power play and sending another tape-to-tape pass across the ice. Olofsson then attempted a pass that was broken up by a Devils defender, but he collected the puck and shot the puck between Blackwood's legs at 13:33.
"I feel like he's probably one of the better passers in this league," Olofsson said of Eichel. "I just try to find the open ice and he found me a lot of times."
Eichel's 19:47 of ice time ranked second among all Sabres forwards behind Sam Reinhart. Their second-year captain also won 8 of 16 faceoffs and had three shots on goal among six attempts. He was even credited with two blocked shots for Buffalo, which has outscored its first two opponents, 10-3, and outshot the Devils, 36-20.
Reinhart scored two goals, Skinner had his first of the season and Kyle Okposo's goal at 2:49 into the second period pushed the Sabres' lead back to two. Eichel has set the tone in each of the first two games. His play away from the puck has shown remarkable improvement under Krueger, and his skills are as tantalizing as ever.
Eichel wasn't pleased with his play the second half of the last season, despite him finishing with career highs in goals (28), assists (54) and points (82). He wants to shot the puck more this season, his fifth since being drafted second overall by the Sabres, and to prove he's among the best scorers in the NHL. Eichel's play exemplifies how Krueger wants the Sabres to perform: fast and furious.
"I thought that our leaders right through the game with their entire actions, whether it was on the bench or on the ice, they were all in on sticking with what we're trying to do here," Krueger said. "Jack, of course, is a leader and the way he's executing on the ice helps in the process tremendously, but we really had a full team performance today."
Eichel also skated on a special-teams unit that killed two Devils power plays and Buffalo had a 5-on-5 shot differential of 51.72 percent. He and his teammates were quick to remind the media that this was only the second game of the season. Okposo said, "Let's not plan the parade right now."
However, it's also important to note the Sabres went almost four months last season without winning consecutive games. They haven't pieced together back-to-back impressive defensive performance like this in quite some time, and their speed has overwhelmed the Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Devils center Jack Hughes, who was drafted first overall in June, was held to two shots on goal and a minus-2 rating. Three of New Jersey's four forward lines were mostly ineffective. Though the Sabres' chaotic October schedule continues Monday, they left KeyBank Center on Saturday with confidence that an identity has been forged under Krueger's leadership, led by their captain.
"It was great to see them react the way they did and the amount of energy that was in the building tonight was tremendous," Eichel said of the crowd. "We felt it on the bench. We were talking about it. It's a special place to play. ... Try to recreate that as much as possible this season."