Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
About half-way through last night's loss Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma put Zemgus Girgensons up with Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. Buffalo had been slogging through much of the game to that point and "Disco Dan" was juggling the lineup trying to get his club moving. Sam Reinhart had originally been on Eichel's right wing but was demoted late in the first period and in a bit of a head-scratcher, Bylsma replaced Reinhart with Marcus Foligno.
That lasted for a good chunk of the second period, but with the Sabres down 2-0 and Ottawa's swarming defense bottling up Buffalo, Bylsma put Girgensons on the wing with Eichel and Kane and the move would eventually generate some desperately needed energy late in their first shift together. Kane jumped on an Ottawa turnover at the Buffalo blueline and headed up ice. The play ended with the trio battling in the Senator's crease and a hooking call going against Ottawa's Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
That line would start the third period for Buffalo and in the words of Bylsma, "really lead the charge."
While Bylsma noted that the Ottawa defense was tight through the first two periods, he also said that his players weren't playing in a way necessary to be successful. He talked about playing behind the Sens defense and of north/south execution up-ice saying that his team didn't play that way through the first two periods. "When you're passing east/west, trying to make lateral plays, you look like you play slow," said the coach. "Give Ottawa credit for being a good checking team but if we keep putting pucks behind them and we're executing behind them, then we'll have success."
The cool part of Eichel, Kane and Girgensons is that they're pure north/south players with enough speed to get behind the defense. They possess top-notch hockey sense, upper-level compete, are deft with their sticks, can find open ice and can finish. On their second shift together in the third period they got behind the Ottawa defense and spent most of their time in the Senators zone. Although they didn't score they created a buzz around the net and pumped some life into a rather solemn First Niagara Center crowd.
The trio was on the ice for the game-tying goal that was eventually overturned by a coach's challenge. With the crowd still buzzing over a minute after Eichel's first career goal to make the score 2-1, Girgensons chipped a puck at the half-wall in the Ottawa zone behind the net. Kane jumped on it and wheeled to the front stuffing one past Sens goalie, Craig Anderson. Although the goal was overturned due to a missed offsides call, it's the type of play Bylsma was talking about.
Bylsma had been shuffling lines throughout the preseason and it carried over into the opener. He put Ryan O'Reilly between Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson and kept that line intact. Now it looks as if Bylsma may have found his other top-line in Eichel, Kane and Girgensons.
The talk all preseason concerning the 18 yr. old Eichel is that the team would slowly work him into the No. 1 center role. So much for that.
Eichel logged 21:58 minutes of ice-time last night with three shots on goal, one registered hit and went 50% on the faceoff dot. Although he came in at a minus-1 he played a strong game against a pretty deep Ottawa team and on many occasions the Sens defense was on their heels when Eichel had the puck. He came in ready to play.
“I don’t really think I want to ease into the season. No one wants to ease into anything. I want to get out there and make an impression, make an impact right away," said Eichel on Wednesday.
It took him a while, but he delivered and his goal sent a rather moribund 19,070 fans into a frenzy.
(thx, Jj Smith for the vid)
It will be a moment etched in Sabres' fans memories for years to come and it's a moment that was very special for Eichel. Not only did he score a goal in his first NHL game, he did it with many family members in attendance including his father Bob, who was celebrating his 55th birthday.
Quite the birthday present.
Eichel's powerplay goal was a product of sheer determination on the part of the powerplay unit. "The compete on that goal from those guys," said Bylsma as he looked to frame his thoughts, "it was a powerplay goal that wasn't a powerplay goal. We got [the puck] over the line and we literally battled it an inch at a time down in the corner. It probably should have been cleared a couple of times.
"But we were on the puck. We win the puck. We keep battling it finally squirts free and Jack's on the weak side [to score]."
"It was a great play by everybody on the ice," said Eichel. "If you go back [and watch the replay] I think we won five battles from the half-wall down to the corner and were able to get the puck out. That's what the powerplay should be all about--out-competing the other team."
Sabres fans haven't seen a powerplay like that of heard player talk like that since Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were working the powerplay back in 2007.
As suspected, the Sabres defense was...well...suspect.
There were mistakes left and right, including one egregious turnover by Rasmus Ristolainen that turned into the Senators second goal, but overall it wasn't a real bad game. In fact, you can lay plenty of the blame for the first Ottawa goal on a poor backcheck by the forwards.
One thing that was very noticeable last night was the team defense and how different it was from the "Keystone Cops" defense we've witnessed over the past two-plus seasons. There were times when Ottawa put the pressure on, and there were times that players were out of position looking for their guy, but overall I don't think there was one instance where the team in front of their net was frantic and flailing.
--I was not a big fan of the Cody Franson signing, but found myself warming up to him as the game went on. He settled in after getting turned around on the Sens first goal less than a minute into the game and played pretty well. Hopefully he can settle down in the offensive zone and take what the defense gives him as it seemed like he was trying to force things.
--Carlo Colaiacovo was one of two players at minus-2 last night (O'Reilly.) It may have taken the 32 yr. old d-man a while to get warmed up but he, like the team had a real solid third period. Once this team gets healthy on defense, Colaiacovo will make for a real solid bottom-pairing/depth player on the Sabres.
--Mike Weber had a tough game but Bylsma had him playing well above his skill level. He, like Colaiacovo, can settle into that depth role once the team gets healthier.
Defenseman Mark Pysyk had a real strong game. During the past two seasons he's never looked out of place in the NHL and last night he was, as usual, sound in his own end making the proper play on nearly every occasion.
What stood out in the third period was his confidence-level and how he jumped into the play at the right time. On the disallowed goal it was Pysyk who skated up the right side and chipped it to a spot on the Sens half-wall where Girgensons could get to it.
That's the type of play that the team has wanted to see from him.
Finally, goalie Chad "I'm not Ocho Cinco" Johnson got the call from the bench when starter Robin Lehner hobbled off the ice and was helped to the dressing room.
Johnson looked poised in net and played a real solid game. Although the stats say one goal on nine shots for a .889 sv. %, he had no chance on the second goal as the puck squirted to Kyle Turris on the weak side with a wide open net to shoot at.
The injury to Lehner looks to be rather serious so Johnson will be the starter and if he plays as well as he did last night with limited action, he'll give the Sabres a chance to win. Which may be all we can ask for at this point