Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The last time Sabres rookie Jack Eichel took to the ice in Boston was April 11, 2015 when his Boston Terriers dropped a 4-3 decision to the Providence Friars in the NCAA National Men's Hockey Championship at TD Garden. Since then he's been on a whirlwind tour that included a trip to the Czech Republic for the 2015 IIHF World Championships where team USA surprisingly brought home the bronze medal in May plus a pre-NHL Draft media blitz before heading to Sunrise, Florida for the 2015 NHL Draft.
With Connor McDavid and Eichel joined at the hip, "McEichel"-mania stretched well into July leading up to Buffalo Sabres Development Camp. The week-long event brought all the youngins--from draft picks to invitees--to the ice for workouts and development and featured the annual Blue and Gold Scrimmage which was held in front of 17,115 fans at the First Niagara Center. Development Camp closed with a 3-on-3 tourney and things calmed down a bit as Eichel settled into off-season workouts.
You could see Eichel was a tired soul at the time of the scrimmage and many fans who'd not seen him play were wondering what all the fuss was. But after watching him during preseason and into the early part of the regular season, a refreshed Eichel displayed his skills.
Headed into the Christmas break it would seem as if he was a bit run down, not only from his first taste of a grinding NHL season, but also from the weight of expectations. “It’s not easy for a kid to come to the team, especially one that that has struggled so much the last year or two, and put all the weight on his shoulders,’’ said GM Murray to Boston Globe writer Kevin Paul Dupont. “To handle it the way he does is just awesome. He is only getting better."
Especially a 19 yr. old kid coming to the NHL from the college ranks. For a little perspective, last year while playing for the Terriers in Hockey East, Eichel played a grand total of 18 games from the start of the season in October to the World Junior Break in mid-December. Beginning November 14, Eichel played 18 games for the Buffalo Sabres in a 35-day period leading up to the Christmas break. That schedule included a short mid-west road trip to St. Louis and Dallas as well as the team's first West Coast trip of the season when they visited Edmonton, Vancouver and Edmonton.
Eichel's brief one-year college career was all of 40 games with five of them being the 2015 NCAA Tournament. He's played in 34 games already, against the some best players in the world and it has worn on him. "Yeah, I need the break," he told the Associated Press, "just mentally and kind of gauge we're' I'm at as a player and where our team's at."
Kudos to the young man for not using any of this as an excuse for a less than otherworldly start to his NHL career. “Everyone wants to talk about how many games you play and obviously it’s a lot,” he told Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. “But I don’t have much to worry about while playing hockey so I don’t want to make excuses for how I’ve been playing."
That said, Eichel welcomed the Christmas break for himself as well as his teammates. "It’s a good break for all of us, good for us to rejuvenate mentally and physically and attack the rest of the year," he continued in the Harrington piece.
The tough schedule was not lost on Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma either. “He needs a break to get refreshed and refocused," said Bylsma via Harrington. "[He needs] to use the time to reenergize and will come back to put a show on in Boston for his hometown.”
Surprisingly enough, this is the first meeting between the old Adams Division rivals this season. The Buffalo/Boston rivalry goes back to the 70's when a fledgling franchise was trying to gain the respect of the league, especially that of the Big Bad Bruins, and to have a first meeting this late in the season is rather curious. But then again, it did give Eichel a chance to get his feet wet before the North Chelmsford, MA native returned to the area where he grew up.
Boston has been hot as of late. They're 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and are now just one point behind the Atlantic Division-leading Montreal Canadiens. Although the Bruins went into the break enduring a shutout loss to the St. Louis Blues, they seem to be rounding into form as they've been playing with an extreme edge bordering on some cheap-shot nastiness as claimed by Rich Chere who covers the New Jersey Devils.
After the Bruins/Devils game on Sunday, Chere wrote that "the Bruins , in particular Max Talbot and Landon Ferraro, took some liberties while delivering dirty hits in the chippy match Sunday at TD Garden." Chere went on to delve into a hit to the head delivered by Talbot on Jiri Tlusty and a rough boarding penalty on Ferraro after nailing Stephen Gionta who happens to be the younger brother of Buffalo Sabres captain, Brian Gionta.
With Boston seemingly tapping into their Big Bad Bruins essence, this will mark the first time this season Buffalo will be facing a particularly edgy hockey club. The Sabres have faced an abundance of high-flyers and finesse teams, but they've yet to take on a hockey team noted for a hard-hitting, in-your-face team that will test your mettle.
The lines for tonight from Sabres PR:
Jamie McGinn-Ryan O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Evander Kane-Jack Eichel-Tyler Ennis
Zemgus Girgensons-Johan Larsson-Brian Gionta
Nic Deslauriers/Moulson-David Legwand-Marcus Foligno
Josh Gorges-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian
Mike Weber-Cody Franson