ST. LOUIS — Jack Eichel's first assignment Saturday night was fitting. During a season in which the Buffalo Sabres' captain has established himself as one of the top players in the NHL, he took the opening faceoff in the All-Star Game.
The 23-year-old center proceeded to display his tantalizing talent, stick-handling around opponents and using his elite speed to create opportunities for his teammates. While he showed why he’s considered one of the league’s best, Eichel was unable to earn a share of the $1 million prize.
Eichel had three assists in the Atlantic Division’s opening win over the Metropolitan, only to fall in the final to Connor McDavid and the Pacific Division, 5-4, in Enterprise Center. Though Eichel expressed disappointment following the loss, he called his third All-Star Game a "fun experience."
"I’ll thank (Boston Bruins coach Bruce) Cassidy for that one, throwing us out there at the start. It was cool," Eichel said. "Whenever you can do these it’s a huge honor."
Eichel added another line to his sterling resume from this season. His secondary assist in the final made him the Sabres' all-time leading scorer in NHL All-Star Games, surpassing Rick Martin's seven points in seven appearances.
Eichel, who was drafted second overall in 2015, has already matched his previous career high of 28 goals and his 62 points rank ninth in the NHL. His 17-game point streak tied Gilbert Perreault for the franchise record, and Eichel has at least 20 goals in each of his first five seasons.
The loss did not cast a shadow over a brilliant offensive display, either.
Eichel, Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman formed arguably the best line out of the four teams. Eichel's 14 career overtime points led all Atlantic Division all-stars, while Pastrnak has scored a league-leading 37 goals this season and Hedman won the Norris Trophy in 2018.
The trio combined for 11 points, including Pastrnak's hat trick, in a 9-5 semifinal victory over the Metropolitan Division. Hedman and Pastrnak also scored in the final, and the latter was named the event's Most Valuable Player.
"What’s not to like?" Hedman said when asked about playing with Eichel and Pastrnak. "You give the puck to them as much as you can and try to get open. I wanted to get one goal and I got two, so I’m happy."
Yet none of the three was able to score in the second of two 10-minute halves in the final. The Atlantic led 3-1 at the intermission, only to be out-scored, 4-1, in the second half. After Detroit's Tyler Bertuzzi broke a 3-3 tie with 6:45 remaining, the Pacific roared back with a wrist shot from Vancouver center Elias Pettersson and San Jose center Tomas Hertl scored his fifth goal of the night for the game-winner.
It was in stark contrast to the dominance the Atlantic Division displayed in the semifinals. Pastrnak scored his first of three goals only 49 seconds into the opening game by one-timing a pass from Hedman. The Atlantic fell behind, 4-2, after goals from John Carlson, Nico Hischier, T.J. Oshie and Seth Jones.
Eichel continued to flash brilliance with and without the puck, including a backhanded shot from in tight that was blocked by Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. The Sabres' lone all-star had the secondary assist on Pastrnak's tying goal with 1:32 remaining in the first period.
"Obviously a few days off from the physical and mental grind from the year," Eichel said of all-star festivities. "Just try to enjoy it."
Eichel also assisted on Hedman's goal at 5:47 into the second for a 6-5 lead. The duo skated down the ice for a 2 on 1 until Hedman flicked a wrist shot over Tristan Jarry's blocker. Eichel's third assist came on Pastrnak's hat-trick goal, an empty-netter to seal the division's first semifinal victory at the event since 2018.
Eichel and his teammates ate pizza while watching the other semifinal game, a 10-5 win for the Pacific Division. Hertl scored four goals, including three unanswered in the second half. Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane had two goals for the Central, the first of which led to a chorus of boos from the crowd. Kane, a South Buffalo native, playfully held his left hand up to his ear to embrace his status as a villain in St. Louis.
— Patrick Kane (@88PKane) January 26, 2020
"It's all in good fun," Kane said. "To be honest with you, sometimes you get booed you kind of like it a little bit. ... I thought that was a pretty cool moment. Tried to put my hand up to my ear to hear the boos, but I was showing them that, 'Hey, I'm playing with the Blues players; I've got the same jersey as them.' Have fun with it."
Following the Pacific Division's semifinal victory, Eichel won the opening faceoff against McDavid and recorded a secondary assist on Hedman's goal 24 seconds into the game. Pastrnak then pushed the lead to 3-1 with a highlight-reel breakaway goal in which he froze Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom by faking a shot and finishing on his backhand.
A win seemed inevitable, until the Pacific mounted a comeback. The intensity and pace were significantly higher in the finale.
"Both teams were playing hard," Eichel said. "There’s money on the line. Everyone is competitive."
"We’re all having fun, but we’re all hockey players," Pastrnak added. "It’s in our nature that we want to win. That’s probably why the tempo was high at the end there."
Eichel described this weekend as an opportunity to take a break from the day-to-day grind of the season. He wasn't interested in discussing the standings when broached with the subject following the skills competition Friday night.
Eichel will now shift his focus on trying to help the Sabres (22-20-7) snap their eight-year playoff drought. Nine of their first 10 games out of the break are at KeyBank Center, and the Sabres are scheduled to practice Sunday at 2 p.m., Eastern.
"Obviously it’s a competitive race right now," Eichel said. "We need to go on a streak, start winning some games. String some good efforts together and good things might happen. For us, we have a lot of home games coming up right now. Just want to start it off on the right foot and go from there."