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Jack Eichel stretches point streak to 17 games, but slow start dooms Sabres

TORONTO -- Jack Eichel silenced the Scotiabank Arena crowd with a shot that hit the net and raised his right hand in a tempered celebration Tuesday night.

Eichel continued his dominance over the Toronto Maple Leafs and the rest of the National Hockey League. Eichel's 24th goal of the season highlighted a third-period rally by the Buffalo Sabres and, five minutes earlier, he stretched his point streak to 17 games, one off the franchise record, with a power-play assist.

His gladiatorial performance in front of an announced crowd of 19,365 confirmed why he's considered an early Hart Trophy candidate, yet the Sabres could not overcome a three-goal deficit and lost to the Maple Leafs, 5-3.

An uncharacteristically bad two periods prevented the Sabres (16-12-7) from creating distance between them and the Leafs (17-14-4) in the Atlantic Division, and illustrated a problem that's plagued Buffalo since Eichel was drafted second overall in 2015: a lack of supplementary scoring.

"We have to push to find deeper scoring in the lineup for sure," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "It’s excellent that Jack does that. He is playing at the top of his game, and it’s a pleasure to stand behind him every night here and see how much heart and soul he’s got, but in a game like this, we need more depth. We need the whole lineup to come through to be able to get points at the end."

Krueger theorized the slow start could be the product of a longer layoff since the Sabres had not played a game since Saturday afternoon on Long Island, and he lamented what he described as his players being "off the pace."

The first 40 minutes Tuesday night was some of the worst hockey the Sabres had played in more than a month. Entering the game, their 33 goals at 5 on 5 since Nov. 21 ranked second in the NHL, and they had earned points in 10 of their previous 12 games to take over second place in the division.

The Leafs, meanwhile, were coming of a stretch in which they played 13 of 16 games on the road. Toronto struck first with Frederik Gauthier's goal on a failed Brandon Montour clearing attempt 2:30 into the game, and the Sabres were out-shot 11-5, including a 2 on 0 breakaway that forced Linus Ullmark to make a sprawling glove save, in the first period.

The second period wasn't much better. Auston Matthews scored his first of two goals at 4:47 on a top-shelf shot from the left-wing circle for a 2-0 lead. Ullmark stopped another odd-man rush and made four saves on a power play, only to get beat on a highlight-reel goal by Matthews.

Matthews stick-handled around Conor Sheary and fooled Ullmark by faking a backhanded shot, only to return to his backhand for a 3-0 lead with 2:21 remaining in the period.

"It was unfortunate that we had the start that we did," Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said. "It’s just tough. I think everybody was just flat. We’ve just got to find a way in those type of situations to bear down and minimize the damage in the first and try to grab the game a little bit better."

Entering Tuesday, the Sabres were 0-11-2 this season when trailing after two periods. However, the rally began when Eichel set up Rasmus Dahlin for a power-play goal to trim the deficit to 3-1 at 1:29 into the third. Eichel's 17-game point streak is the longest in the NHL this season and tied with Dave Andreychuk for the second-longest in franchise history.

Eichel has multiple points in seven of the past 10 games, and he leads the NHL in goals (16), points (31) and plus-minus (19) since the streak began Nov. 16. Gilbert Perreault recorded 10 goals among 31 points during his franchise-best 18-game point streak in 1971.

Dymtro Timashov scored on a breakaway only 3:29 after Dahlin's goal to give the Leafs a 4-1 lead. Rather than wilting under what appeared to be an insurmountable deficit, the Sabres quickly responded when Victor Olofsson sprung Eichel with a cross-ice pass, and the 23-year-old captain finished with a snap shot from the right-wing faceoff circle over goalie Frederik Andersen's blocker 6:30 into the third period.

"It was a perfect shot," Olofsson, who had two assists and leads all NHL rookies with 32 points this season, said.

"He’s obviously doing pretty amazing things right now," Okposo said of Eichel. "He’s really come into his own and becoming a superstar."

Okposo then cut the deficit to 4-3 with 5:19 remaining in regulation, and the Sabres had an opportunity to tie the score after Zach Hyman was penalized for holding less than one minute later. Krueger pulled Ullmark for the extra attacker with more than three minutes to play for a 6-on-4 advantage, only to have Marcus Johansson turn the puck over at the blue line and Ilya Mikheyev score a shorthanded empty-net goal.

Ullmark made 28 saves and has a .916 save percentage in his last 10 starts, and the Sabres' power play continued to show improvement in Dahlin's third game back from a concussion. The slow start illustrates a greater problem, though.

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe used his top line, led by center John Tavares, to slow down Eichel, Olofsson and Sam Reinhart. Eichel said he and his linemates were a "little slow" because of turnovers in the first period.

The Sabres' other three forward lines struggled for the same reason. An inability to forecheck in the defensive zone forced them to chase the Leafs and resulted in quality scoring chances. Buffalo also was slow when it had possession, allowing Toronto to set up defensively in the neutral zone.

"I thought we just started attacking the game a little more," Eichel said of the difference in the third period. "We came after them. We forechecked the puck better. I thought we were more tenacious, we got a little grittier and it worked out for us."

Though the Sabres' top line is thriving, Jeff Skinner does not have a goal in seven straight games, Sheary has two goals in 25 games, Evan Rodrigues is goalless in 19 games and Johansson has one in his past 19 games. Casey Mittelstadt, who was expected to provide supplementary scoring, was assigned to the Rochester Americans on Sunday.

While the rest of the hockey world talks about his Hart Trophy candidacy, Eichel's focus is on ensuring he and his teammates don't fall victim to another slow start.

"We’ve got a long year here, obviously," Eichel said of the Hart Trophy talk. "Not even halfway through the season. I’m not thinking about it at all. There’s a lot that our group needs to accomplish and a long way to go for us to be where we want to be, in the playoffs at the end of the year."

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