Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Make no mistake, Jack Eichel is a stud. Last night he took over the game when Buffalo was down 2-0 to the Detroit Red Wings and single-handedly evened things up. He's a 19 yr. rookie who has top-notch skill, off the charts hockey sense and an internal drive worthy of a kid from a small town just outside of Lowell, Massachusetts, home to brothers Dicky Eklund and Mickey Ward of the biopic, The Fighter.
Eichel had a decent start to his NHL career but nothing even close to the hype of a franchise center just this side of a generational player like Edmonton's Connor McDavid. In 35 games prior to the long Christmas break for the Sabres, the 6'1" 205 lb. Eichel had nine goals and seven assists. Within those 35 games was a nine-game stretch beginning in late November where he only had one goal and one assist while looking less than pedestrian. Actually he was looking a bit tired.
With two games left before the break, however, Eichel would begin to right the ship (two assists) and in his first appearance against his hometown favorite Boston Bruins right after the break, he proceeded to light up the TD Center ice with two goals and two assists in Buffalo's come from behind victory. It may have been the first time this season where Eichel felt that he could take over a game at the NHL level.
Forward Zemgus Girgensons was no where near Eichel during the Boston game as he has been relegated to third-line checking duties for most of the season. "Gus" had performed admirably in his role and found himself the beneficiary of a center-swap by head coach Dan Bylsma.
Just past the mid-way point of the third period of Buffalo's 2-0 loss vs. Washington on December 28, Bylsma moved Eichel between Girgensons and Brian Gionta. On the very first shift, Eichel danced through the Caps defense and got the puck near the crease with Girgensons and Gionta crashing the net.
Eichel is scary-fast and loves to have the puck on his stick. He's also heady and sees small pockets of open ice for both himself and his linemates. But, throughout his first three-dozen games he and his linemates have been out of synch for any number of reasons. Bylsma had tried a half-dozen wingers for Eichel and even moved him down to the third line for a time but consistent chemistry was not there. It should be noted that Eichel didn't register his first assist until the 14th game of the season.
Chemistry is hard to find sometimes and "Dancing Dan" Bylsma has been struggling to find the proper wingers for Eichel (as well as the proper center for Kane.) But perhaps he may have found one in Girgensons.
Sabres broadcasters Brian Duff and Brad May were talking between periods about Kane and center Johan Larsson. May focused upon having trust in your linemate and that he felt the two were beginning to build some but weren't quite there. Kane had set up Larsson on the door-step for an easy tap-in but Larsson just didn't think he would get the puck there and whiffed on the tip.
Eichel and Girgensons seem to be on the same page right now and it stems from each of them trusting the other to hit the open ice. You could see it the first time they started a game together as a line. Girgensons hit the Washington blue line with speed, drove the defense back and dropped the puck to Eichel. As Girgensons went far-side, Eichel veered that way drawing the entire defense leaving Gionta alone for the tap-in.
In watching the game yesterday afternoon, Eichel and Girgensons were both getting the puck to each other in open ice. It happened on Eichel's second goal. With bodies flying all over the place around the Buffalo blueline, Girgensons made a simple chip-pass to the open ice while Eichel was gathering a head of steam. He picked up the puck in the neutral zone and headed in on a breakaway. Score. Game tied 2-2.
The first thought that popped into my head concerning these two was Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--alpha-dog and elite complimentary player. It's not to say that either Eichel or Gus are at that level yet, but like those two they seem to have a good feel as to where the other will be and are very comfortable with who they are and their roles on the team.
Said Eichel after yesterday's game to the gathered media, "It's been really good playing with Gus and Gio. They both play a real simple game and work real hard. They make it pretty easy for me."
A quick footnote:
Bylsma had used a line of Eichel, Kane and Girgensons about half-way through the first game of the season vs. Ottawa. With the Sabres down 2-0 and their offense being throttled by a tight-checking Senators team, Bylsma sent out those three, all of whom are north/south players. And it worked. Almost.
After Eichel brought the Sabres to within one on his first NHL goal, Kane tied the score after taking a chip-pass from Girgensons and circling the Ottawa goal for the score. However, the goal was reversed on a missed off sides call. Bylsma said after the game that the trio "really lead the charge" as the Sabres nearly came from behind.
Not sure why that trio didn't see an extended stint together afterwards either.
The Sabres have come out with victories four times this season when entering the third period trailing and last night they were well on their way to at least forcing an overtime. After Eichel tied the score at 2-2, Detroit went up and fellow rookie Sam Reinhart was the beneficiary of being in the right place--atop the crease--as a Wings defenseman unwittingly slapped the puck back towards his own goal. Reinhart appeared to have touched the puck as it went into the net.
However, Detroit would score the game winner with just under three minutes to play on a goal that Chad Johnson needs to stop. Everyone did their part on the play leaving Johnson a clear view of Tomas Tatar's wrister from the slot. The puck sailed over Johnson's shoulder, blocker side and the Sabres would proceed to lose their fourth in a row.
Johnson had a .826 SV% for the game and redemption was right around the corner, but he just couldn't get it done.
That said, Johnson's been playing exceptionally well this season and should ease any concerns anyone may have had with him as a back-up who can stand in for long stretches.
Buffalo's next opponent is the Florida Panthers. Or should I say the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers. The Cats are 9-1-0 in their last 10 games and have now moved ahead of the Montreal Canadiens by one point with two games in hand.
It's a strange site seeing Florida atop a division, something we haven't seen since 2011-12 when they finished they won the old Southeast Division with a 38-26-18 record. Their 18 OT/SO losses were the most of any playoff team that year while their 32 regulation/OT wins were last amongst the playoff field.
The Panthers seem to have been in perennial rebuild-mode for almost two decades with that 2011-12 season being their first playoff appearance in 10 seasons. Although they would falter, it would seem as if the rebuilding plan that started in 2010 with the hiring of GM Dale Tallon is really starting to pay off this season. All of their top-tier first-round picks are turning into the types of NHL players they were drafted for and Tallon rounded out he squad with some well-placed veterans.
It didn't happen overnight.
The first Tallon-draft was 2010 where they ended up with three first-rounders and 13 picks overall. From that draft are first-rounders Eric Gudbranson (3rd-overall,) Nick Bujgstad (19th) and Quinton Howden (25th) as well as Alex Petrovic (36th) and Connor Brinkley (50th.)
The 2011 draft brought in Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd,) Vincent Trochek (64th) and Logan Shaw (76th.) No players from the 2012 draft are on the team right now as they started that draft with the 23rd-overall pick, but in 2013 they added Aleksander Barkov (2nd) and in 2014 defenseman Aaron Ekblad was taken with the first overall pick in the draft.
After that playoff birth in 2012 the Panthers had league-finishes of 30th and 29th before finishing 20th in the league last season.
Their patience is beginning to pay off.
Just a thought.
Quick note, Buffalo has split the season series, with games played in Florida.