Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Eichel propels Sabres to OT win. First Prospects Challenge comes to a close

Reprinted with permission from

Jack Eichel won't turn 19 yrs. old until October 28th and in the short time he's been in the fold in Buffalo, he's given the organization and it's fans something to really get excited about.

Not to dismiss some of the young players that are on the team now, like Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons, or that will be on the team in the very near future like Sam Reinhart, Jake McCabe, Nicholas Baptiste and Brendan Guhle or even young, seasoned vets like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis, but what the Sabres have in Eichel is something pretty special.

As chronicled, Eichel is a young man with NHL-size, impressive speed and acceleration and has the ability to either set up or score. He's very strong for his age, doesn't cut corners when it comes to his training regimen and in keeping with the values he was raised with Eichel expects nothing that isn't earned. That foundation was ingrained in him by his father while growing up in North Chelmsford, MA, just 30 miles northwest of Boston.

The Buffalo Sabres just finished hosting their inaugural Prospects Challenge at First Niagara Center and the adjacent HARBORCENTER last night with an OT win over the Boston Bruins. The rather hastily put together event consisted prospects from three teams--Buffalo, Boston and the New Jersey Devils--playing in a round-robin over the course of three nights beginning Saturday night.

For prosperity's sake, the Challenge was won by the Sabres who amassed four points via two wins. Boston was second with three points (a win vs. New Jersey and a OT loss to Buffalo) while the Devils finished with one point after losing to the Sabres in the opener (6-2) and taking the Bruins to overtime on Saturday.

It was a humble start to the event and one would think that Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the umbrella under which the Sabres and Buffalo Bills operate, is looking to take it to the level of the annual Traverse City Tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. Buffalo had been participants in the event since 2011 during the honeymoon phase of the Pegula's ownership and as a team they fared rather nicely up until last year. The Pegula's gathered plenty of knowledge and insight as to how it was run and now with HARBORCENTER and it's two rinks ready for extended action, the next step is to bring in more teams for the tournament.

That said, regardless of how many teams were in it, live action versus your peers in an NHL setting is a great warm-up to training camp for the youngins. Nearly all of the participants in this year's Challenge will be headed back to their respective developmental leagues so this was an opportunity to gain some valuable experience while getting ready for the upcoming hockey season. It also provides ample the organization the opportunity to see where their players are from a developmental standpoint. For most they're looking for progress.

And then there's Eichel.

Sabres fans didn't get a real good showing from Eichel at the Sabres Development Camp scrimmage back in July as he was visibly worn out from the whirlwind leading up to the scrimmage including four days of developmental camp in Buffalo. But what they saw the two nights the Sabres played this weekend was Eichel doing what he was expected to do against his peers--dominate. One goal plus two assists, both primary, in two games aren't mind-blowing, but it was the "how" aspect that was most impressive. "It's the manner in which he does it," Rochester Americans head coach Cunneyworth said. "There's calm. There's poise. It's thought out beforehand. It's pure ability."

All of that on display during the game-tying goal by a pinching Brycen Martin. Here's how Martin described it after the game still in a state of disbelief, "Eich[el] gets it on the half-wall, like...perfect pass right on the tape. I don't think I'm ever going to forget that pass. It was so perfect."

It was a cross-ice pass through three defenders. "I think that’s a pass that might not make it if you don’t elevate it a little bit or find that perfect sweet spot … it’s pure ability,” Cunneyworth said of Eichel's pass.

Oh, yeah. He also scored the winner in OT, dog-tired from the previous shift. "I was on the bench after a long shift, and coach asked me if I had anything left," he said. "I figured I could go out there and see what I can do."

During the three-on-three OT he blazed up the right side past what looked like a pylon, hit the circle to the left of Bruins goalie Zane McIntyre and fired it home. Kris Baker of was between the benches for the tournament and commented on that goal. "Big-time players step up in big-time situations," said Baker of Eichel. "He made no mistake. It was a big-time shot."

Host Brian Duff asked Baker what he saw from Eichel as he headed up ice. "Speed and the eye of the tiger," said Baker immediately. "For a guy who we didn't think would have a lot left in the tank, Eichel had a lot of momentum. He had one thing on his mind, go down and shoot the puck and make it count."

And he did.

There were others who had fine tournaments, like Reinhart and Guhle. Jake McCabe got off to a slow start in his only appearance last night but came on strong and is readying himself for training camp and an opportunity to make the Sabres roster.

Evan Rodrigues looked great during the tournament and may force the coaching staff to make a tough decision come October. Rodrigues has acute hockey sense and a laser-accurate shot that he releases quickly. He had a 10-game audition with the Amerks last season, was signed to a one-year deal and is looking to make an impact at training camp.

Rodrigues finished with three points (2+1,) tied with his linemate Eichel (1+2) for the team lead in points, one point behind Boston's Austin Czarnik (0+4)

Buffalo scoring leaders behind Rodrigues and Eichel:

Baptiste--2pts (2+0)
Cason Hohmann--2 (1+1)
Vaclav Karabacek--2 (1+)
Martin--2 (1+1)

Shots on Goal:

Reinhart, 14
Eichel, 12
Rodrigues, 12
Guhle, 9
Baptiste, 7


Andrey Makarov--30:52 TOI; 1-0-0; 0.00 gaa, 1.000 sv%
Keegan Asmundson--29:08 TOI; 0-0-0; 6.18 gaa, .824 sv%
CJ Motte--64:23 TOI; 1-0-0; 1.86 gaa, .931 sv%

Next up. Training Camp before the September 21st preseason opener at Minnesota.

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