Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel has said that he'll continue to wear No. 41 until he officially makes the roster and only at that time will he switch to his permanent No. 15. It's a noble gesture from a character kid who's unassuming nature can traced to his roots when his father Bob engrained in him that everything's earned and nothing's guaranteed. But after last night's opening preseason game at Minnesota it would be safe to assume that he'll on the roster.
With the Sabres down 2-1 in the third period RW, Zemgus Girgensons got the puck off the wall and fed Eichel creating a two-on-one. The 18 yr. old center found his other linemate, LW, Matt Moulson in the paint and the 31 yr. old veteran promptly deposited the puck in the net to tie the score. Of note: on the ice for the Wild at the time was a group of top-end veterans for Minnesota--Mikael Grandlund, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon.
Moulson's at his best when he's workin' the paint, it was something that he admitted he'd gotten away from last year. But with linemates Eichel and Girgensons he certainly knows what to do. "With [Eichel] and Zemgus out there, I think the biggest thing is just get [to the net] and the puck's gonna get there at some point."
With the game tied at two and Sabres defenseman Brady Austin in the box for tripping, Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma sent out Eichel on the second penalty kill unit, which was somewhat of a surprise as Bylsma said he doesn't really use his skill players shorthanded. "It's probably something I would want to do normally, but I think those were the guys who were going to get it done. I was thinking at the time that I was tiring out my skill players, but the came out big with the kill there."
Eichel and another skill player, defenseman Cody Franson, joined Johan Larsson and Mike Weber for a defensive zone draw. Eichel won the draw to Franson who got the puck out over the bluline. Spurgeon and Eichel converged on the puck but Eichel tipped it past and blazed in all alone on Wild goalie, Darcy Kuemper. Unlike the Sabres Development Scrimmage where he shucked and jived during a penalty shot, Eichel kept it simple and calmly slid the puck five-hole to put the Sabres up 3-2. (see highlights here at the 5:25-mark.)
Said Eichel of the play, “I hadn’t been on the kill but he put me out for the draw, I was on my strong side so I was able to win it. You know, good bounce after, it was a nice play from [defenseman Cody Franson] so I got a little break there and it was nice to get the first one.”
Eichel wasn't perfect on the night (although he was 1st-star quality electric,) however. In the first period he hit the Wild bluline and pulled a spinorama to get by Spurgeon but promptly lost the puck. Minnesota corralled it and sent it up ice where Spurgeon rifled a slapshot past Buffalo goalie Chan Johnson to put the Wild up 1-0. "It was a learning moment for me," said Eichel of the play.
The Sabres got plenty of quality play from a number of players on the night including Johan Larsson who centered a line with Marcus Foligno on his left and Nic Deslauriers on the right. The trio combined for Buffalo's first goal with less than two minutes left in the first period to tie the score 1-1. It was yet another case of players going to the net as Deslauriers jumped on a juicy rebound.
"[Larsson] played a lot for us he took 19 draws in a lot of key situations and we depended on him a lot in this game," said Bylsma. Larsson would finish with one assist and was a team leading plus-two in 17:53 of icetime.
On the blueline Bylsma pointed to Franson who had a game-high 24:18 of ice time yet he was also quick to mention 2015 second-round pick (51st-overall,) Brendan Guhle. "I liked watching the kid," said Bylsma of Guhle, "he's got speed and I though he competed hard. He doesn't look like an 18 yr. old kid out there and he certainly doesn't look like a late second-round pick. He looks pretty confident and he showed some poise later on in the game."
Guhle was paired with fellow Sherwood Park, Alberta, native, Mark Pysyk. The 23 yr. old Pysyk who has over 200 pro games under his belt between Buffalo (70) and Rochester was his usual steadying force on the back end. Early in the game Guhle felt the pressure and was forced into a giveaway but Pysyk would bail him out. It's something Pysyk, a defensive defenseman with decent offensive acumen, has been doing throughout his hockey career.
With a 3-2 come from behind regulation win, it was a team effort with plenty of individual performances worth noticing. But the night really belonged to Eichel who's speed and athleticism, talent and poise covered the entire 200' x 85' sheet of ice. Bylsma, who coached Eichel at the 2015 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships raved about his all-around game. "Out of the 17 [or so] games I've seen him play this is probably the best he's played without the puck. He tracked back extremely hard, created some turnovers, was hard in the d-zone. I thought that it was the best game I've seen him play away from the puck.
"Like I said I've seen him play [multiple] times and that was by far his best game away from the puck. We probably saw his speed more defensively tonight than we did offensively."
With an all-around performance featuring the primary assist on the game-tying goal, a short-handed game-winner and defensive awareness equal to or greater than his offensive prowess, one would think that this kid just might have enough to stick with the Sabres this season.
Bring on No. 15.
Special thanks to WGR for their coverage of a non-televised game and to Paul Hamilton for his post-game coverage.