VANCOUVER -- Jack Eichel is as hot as he's been at any point in his five NHL seasons. The Buffalo Sabres may be a veritable mess on special teams right now but that factoid surrounding their captain is keeping them in the thick of basically every game.
Eichel enters Saturday's visit to Rogers Arena against the Vancouver Canucks in rare air for his career, seventh in the NHL in scoring. A point-a-game player for the first time last season, Eichel has 39 points in 29 games this year, with 18 goals and 21 assists.
So heading into Game 30 on the schedule, he's on pace for 51 goals and 110 points. Those are numbers in Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny territory, circa 1993.
Eichel enters the game on an 11-game point streak, tied for the longest of his career. His 10 goals and 20 points during the streak are tops in the NHL for games since it began on Nov. 16 with his first career four-goal outburst in a win over Ottawa.
If Eichel gets a point Saturday, he would have a 12-game streak and that would be the longest by a Sabre since Tim Connolly's 16-gamer from Dec. 23, 2009-Jan. 25, 2010.
"It's been good for me. I'm trying to be consistent and work hard every shift," Eichel told The Buffalo News after practice Friday at the University of British Columbia. "If you do little things, the points will come. I'm playing with good players and we're doing much better in the O-zone. We're getting much more sustained pressure on cycles. We definitely put in a lot of effort being better down there and I think it's paid off."
The streak was never more in jeopardy than it was Thursday in Calgary, when Eichel got his point on a power-play goal with 47.4 seconds left. It was the final tally in a disheartening 4-3 loss that saw the Sabres go 0 for 7 on the power play until that goal.
Eichel spent plenty of time this summer looking to score more goals, even after reaching a career-high of 28 last season. He's been working with longtime NHLer and current shooting-coach-for-the-stars Adam Oates and the results are clear.
Eichel never had a shooting percentage above 10.2 percent in his first four seasons. He's at 16.5 this year and basically averaging the same number of shots on goal at 3.75, compared to last year's 3.94.
"Hitting the net is a mindset. If you notice, I've scored a lot more goals this year by going low," he said. "I've stopped trying to beat goalies bar-down every time and over their glove. You want to put pressure on them and make them make a save. Low glove, low stick and I've benefited. They can't stop what they can see too. I've used screens more."
The Sabres worked hard on man-advantage situations in practice again Friday. Eichel and linemates Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson were joined on the top unit by Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Ristolainen.
"It's a bit of an urgency for us right now," Eichel said. "We think it's just set it up, make a couple tape-to-tape passes and someone will hammer a one-timer in. We have to get back to outworking the other team more. Last night was a broken play with no one in their set position and we get a shot on it.
"This league is so special-teams driven, it's crazy. Look at the top teams. The majority of them have really good penalty kill and power play."
Eichel was particularly annoyed with Buffalo's power-play failures in the first period Thursday, as the Sabres frittered away a 5-on-3 chance when they could have taken a quick two-goal lead.
"You got a 5-on-3 to go up 2-0 on the road. It doesn't happen much," he said. "It's a good chance for us ... We squandered it but you have to keep harping how important they are in the first period."
Eichel has 13 goals and 26 points at home, second in the NHL in both departments. He also has a league-leading plus-15 rating. Things are much tougher on the on road, where the last change gives the home side a matchup edge. Eichel is at 5-8-13 in 15 games with a minus-5 rating.
"One of the advantages (of using an 11-forward, 7-defeneseman lineup) is you can slip that line in after two shifts, three whatever. Just to break the matchups and get him away from a Giordano for instance," said Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, referring to Calgary Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano. "It gives the Eichel line a different feel and look. It's tough on him at times because they focus so much."
Krueger has been thrilled with Eichel's 200-foot play as well as his scoring. Eichel feels his improved defensive game has translated to offense and he said he's harped on the point with his linemates.
"As better we are with the puck, the less time we'll play in our own end," he said. "We want to get pucks deep and outwork teams in their zone. Use our skill, creativity and ability to protect the puck to get more chances."
Okposo could return
The Sabres again went with an 11-7 lineup Thursday night but it seems likely they will go with a standard 12-6 output here Saturday. Kyle Okposo was full-bore in practice and could return 10 games after suffering his latest concussion. He skated with regular linemates Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons on Friday.
"As a person, as a leader, it's so good to have him back in our space," Krueger said of Okposo, one of five Buffalo forwards injured in a five-game stretch. "It seemed to hit all our veteran guys back to back to back and you could feel that hole a little bit."
A promotion for Asplund
Larsson was back with his regular linemates and out of the spot alongside Jeff Skinner he's spent the last four games. Back at center with Skinner is Marcus Johansson. A new addition to that line at right wing is promising rookie Rasmus Asplund.
"We think he's shown a grit to the game that's really interesting," Krueger said. "We think he's improving every day and showing more and more what it takes to play in the National Hockey League."