Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
There was a point in time during the season where Buffalo Sabres rookie Jack Eichel was really struggling. The 19 yr. old, 2015 Hobey Baker winner was adjusting to the rigors of the NHL and had simply hit a wall. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas where it looked as if there was a fog surrounding him. Sure, his quick acceleration blazing speed was on display and he still possessed deft stick work and a wicked shot, but he was fighting fatigue for that 12 game period.
Stat-watchers and fancy analytics gurus who hadn't seen him play were probably asking themselves what all the hype was about. After all, Chicago's Artemi Panarin was tearing it up as was Detroit's Dylan Larkin. And then there was Edmonton's Connor McDavid who was living up to the hype (5g, 7a, in 13 games) before he succumbed to a broken collar bone. In Eichel there was a player as hyped as much as fellow 2015 draftee McDavid, but the results just weren't there.
From the beginning of the season those watching the Sabres could see that his linemates were struggling to keep up. Eichel had five goals in 13 games but didn't record his first assist until the 14th game. He followed that stretch with some solid production and finished the first part of the season with eight goals and 4 assists in 22 games before the Thanksgiving holiday.
However, between Thanksgiving and the Christmas break he only had five points (2+3) in 12 games including a seven-game goal drought heading into the break. Were it not for two assists, he'd have headed into Christmas on a seven-game pointless streak. Eichel had hit the rookie wall and headed back home to North Chelmsford, MA to re-energize.
And that he did.
Eichel came out of the break on Boxer Day and proceeded to almost single-handedly defeat his hometown Boston Bruins with a two-goal, two-assist, first-star night at TD Garden. In 16 games between the end of the Christmas break and the beginning of the All-Star break, Eichel has 18 points on seven goals and 11 assists.
His 34 points place him second behind Panarin's 46 and his 16 goals are only one behind Panarin while his 18 assists places him third behind Panarin (29) and Arizona's Max Domi (19) and in doing so has forced his way into the Calder Trophy conversation. Which is no small feat.
Prior to the season most had Eichel and McDavid as the favorites with a strong group jostling for position behind them. While Eichel was slowly adapting to the newness of his NHL home and McDavid was sidelined by injury, Panarin has been riding the Patrick Kane express to the top of the statistics. Larkin and Domi have been playing exceptional hockey and are in the top five in all three scoring categories while there's another group which includes St. Louis d-man Colton Parayko who's plus-18 rating is second only to Larkin's +24.
This is a Breeder's Cup Classic race and as we come out of the back-stretch and begin to round the long turn home, Eichel seems to have found his stride. His two assists at Madison Square Garden on Monday and his two goals yesterday in Ottawa served warning that he's beginning to get the hang of this NHL thing. Eichel has the look of a horse that has incredible closing speed and I'm sure he has those at the front of this race looking over their shoulders.
Gonna be a fun finish to the year.
Part of the success of Eichel these last two games has been due to his linemate Zemgus Girgensons.
"Gus" was the recipient of an awesome no-look, skate pass from Eichel that he deposited top-shelf on the NY Rangers Henrik Lundqvist from in tight. And on Girgensons second goal, he used his own speed to meet Eichel at the Rangers blueline, even stretching a toe-drag to stay onside, and collect a beautiful saucer pass before back handing one past Lundqvist.
Although he didn't register an assist on either of Eichel's goals last night, he was instrumental in both goals.
Girgensons drove hard to the net on Eichel's first one, tying up Norris Trophy winning Erik Karlsson in the process. The Ottawa d-man was so caught up in defending Girgensons that when Eichel circled the net for his wrap-around, Karlsson couldn't get there in time. On the second goal, Girgensons took a feed from Zach Bogosian at the Sabres blueline and streaked down the left wing. He sent a saucer pass to Eichel who was barreling towards the net. The puck bounced around a bit and ended up just outside the crease where Eichel, who had overrun the play was there to swipe it home.
Also of note on that second goal are a couple of players who took hits to help the Sabres gain and keep control of the puck before Bogosian was able to move it up-ice. Defenseman Mark Pysyk took a hit behind the net and Matt Moulson got crushed along the half-wall on the play. Both, however were able to get the puck to a Buffalo player in open ice and eventually the Sabres cleared the zone.
On Eichel's first goal, he told WGR's Paul Hamilton post-game, "We had someone driving the net that caused a little havoc in the blue crease and I think that gave me a little extra time." That player, of course, was Girgensons.
The player who actually started that play was none other than goalie Robin Lehner who was playing his first ever game in Ottawa against his former team.
Late in that powerplay both teams were on a change with the puck headed towards the Sabres zone. Lehner jumped on the puck and got it up quickly to Eichel who gathered it and streaked up ice as only he and Buffalo's Johan Larsson were on the right side of the rink. Eichel streaked in and dismissed Ottawa d-man Jared Cowan as if he was yesterday's news before his wraparound.
Lehner got the only assist on the play as well as the only Buffalo assist on the three goals. Evander Kane's opening goal and Eichel's second were both unassisted.
In addition to his set-up prowess, Lehner was solid in net, especially in the third period with the Sabres up by one and the Senators bombarding Lehner with a barrage of 22 third period shots which included a number of spectacular saves. Buffalo had two shots all period, the one where Eichel scored just 1:08 in and another one :21 seconds late meaning during the final 18:31 of the game the Senators outshot the Sabres 22-0.
And Lehner's reward for turning away all 22 of them while winning his first game of the season against his former team? Nothing as he was shut out of the game's three stars as judged by the homer in Canada's Capital.
Whatever. Hockeybuzz fans know the refrain, "________ the Sens."