Without citing specific reasons and despite losing both home games out of the All-Star break, Jack Eichel told the media following practice Friday that history won't repeat itself during the Buffalo Sabres' second-half schedule.
"You know, it's not last year," Eichel said. "We've been through these times where we take a couple hits at this time of year ... and all of a sudden the wheels fall off. That's not happening here."
Eichel needed only 36 seconds of overtime Saturday afternoon to provide a reason why this season may be different. The Sabres' 23-year-old captain carried the puck from one end of the ice to the other and knifed through the offensive zone to reach the right-wing circle, where he snapped a shot into the net to secure a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Sabres (23-22-7) remained 10 points out of a playoff spot after snapping their three-game skid, however, their roster under Ralph Krueger has one significant presence that did not exist during the historic collapse of 2018-19: a Hart Trophy-caliber version of Eichel.
Eichel has 31 goals, three more than his previous career high, and 34 assists through 51 games.
"The difference between 3 on 3 and 5 on 5 is very large, and the space gives the elite players in the league opportunities to do things that are special," Krueger said afterward. "It was all about Jack taking the space and very calmly maintaining that position until he got the goal, saw the hole, saw the gap. We know the genius of Jack and the competitiveness and the leadership that he shows and the hunger he has to be successful as a teammate, not just as an individual. That’s what makes that goal so special.”
Eichel didn't take the opening faceoff of overtime after he went 8 for 15 in the circle during regulation. The assignment was given to Curtis Lazar, who proceeded to win his fourth draw in five attempts to finish the game.
After winning the faceoff, Lazar quickly skated toward the bench and was replaced by Sam Reinhart. Eichel then gained possession in the defensive zone and skated up the middle of the ice, across the opposing blue line toward the left boards and down to the top of the left-wing circle.
Eichel maintained possession and carried the puck over to the right circle, using defenseman Seth Jones as a screen to distract goalie Matiss Kivlenieks from a shot that went far side to secure the win 36 seconds into overtime.
"It’s fun to watch," Lazar said of Eichel. "As soon as he gets the puck when he’s on the ice, everybody’s playing his game and that’s exactly how he wants it. That’s how we want it, too. He’s one of the best in the world for a reason, and he shows it every time he steps on the ice."
It was Eichel's seventh game-winner of the season and his third goal in as many games. As of Saturday afternoon, Eichel's 31 goals ranked fourth in the National Hockey League, trailing only Boston's David Pastrnak, Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Toronto's Auston Matthews.
The Sabres' second-half collapse last season cast a shadow over a career year for Eichel that included him averaging more than a point per game. Yet he was not consistently delivering the signature performances that have become common in his fifth NHL season.
"I think that guy shows it every night," Carter Hutton said of Eichel. "He's been here long enough. You guys know what he's all about. He's a competitor. That's the reason why he's so good. He puts everything he has into this. He trains like nobody else. He's skilled like nobody else. And that's why he's one of the best players in the world."
The Sabres needed more than Eichel to beat the Blue Jackets (27-16-9). Rasmus Dahlin skated around Emil Bemstrom and drew another defender toward the left-wing boards to create space in the middle of the offensive zone.
Dahlin then passed to the slot, where Evan Rodrigues retrieved the puck and laced a shot under Kivlenieks' left leg pad for a 1-0 lead at 16:08 into the game. The Sabres went 2-for-2 on the penalty kill and allowed just 24 total shots, 23 of which were stopped by Hutton, who secured his first win since Oct. 22.
In Kyle Okposo's absence, Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons provided a consistent presence on the forecheck. The latter checked Vladislav Gavrikov into the Sabres' bench late in the second period.
Those contributions added up to a more complete defensive performance that was likely boring to viewers, but the Sabres wanted this to be more of a slog.
One of their few significant breakdowns occurred 5:45 into the third period, when no one covered Oliver Bjorkstrand, who retrieved the puck after it deflected off Henri Jokiharju's skate and fired a shot over Hutton's blocker to tie the score.
"It’s a big win for the group," Eichel said. "I thought we hunkered down. It’s a good hockey team. Obviously, they’re fighting for points right now, too. They’re arguably one of the hotter teams in the league right now. Give them credit, I thought they played really well. It was good to see us find a way to get a win. It was a huge goal by (Rodrigues) in the first, and we made some big plays when we needed to. Hutts had some huge saves and we find a way to win. So that’s what it’s about."
Still, the Sabres face long odds to snap their eight-year playoff drought. Every game has become a must win, and Buffalo needs help. Okposo is out "weeks," according to Krueger, and joined an injury list that now includes Brandon Montour, Linus Ullmark, Victor Olofsson, Tage Thompson and Vladimir Sobotka.
Secondary scoring remains an issue -- Jeff Skinner has zero goals in his last 14 games -- and the Sabres struggled to break the puck out of their own zone against Columbus.
However, for all the Sabres' deficiencies, they can count on Eichel.
"When he gets that puck on his stick, you never know, he can end it," Hutton said. "And that's what he did tonight."