Jack Eichel has had some big games for the Sabres dating back to December 26, 2016 in Boston where as a rookie he led the charge (2 goals, 2 assists) in a come from behind 6-3 win against his hometown Bruins. The 23 yr. old Eichel has a had hat trick before and has four-point games before, which includes two already this year (both games 2+2.) However, he reached another level in last night's four-goal game in the Sabres 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.
It's not just the fact that he scored four goals or that he outscored Ottawa himself, but in the big picture, Eichel carried his team on his back when they needed it most. The Sabres had been struggling since getting off to a torrid start to the season, came into the Senators game on a six-game winless streak (0-4-2) and as a team couldn't beat Sens goalie Craig Anderson last night. It's a movie Buffalo hockey fans have seen over and over again for a decade or more, one in which the Sabres played a team they could or should beat, but in the end were left to lament about how they worked hard and had the chances but just couldn't finish and/or didn't have puck luck. For the Sabres other 17 skaters on the ice against last night, that part of the equation was true.
What those previous teams didn't have that this edition does, was a player like Eichel who has the skill-level to defy that scenario.
We've seen Eichel's speed often enough and we've seen the level of skill he has with his shot. We've also seen him combine the two on numerous occasions in varying scenarios yet we've never seen him dominate a game like he did last night. Eichel was playing with a possessed stick and it didn't even seem as if he was riffing all that much to get the velocity he got on his shot. Anderson didn't have a chance on the three goals that were snapped by him with Eichel making it look almost effortless. The Sabres captain would ice the game with a determined shot from the red line into an empty net with 13.7 seconds to play.
For those of us lucky to be following the team at this point in time in their franchise history, we seem to be witnessing the continued maturation of a superstar in Eichel and although it hasn't been as quick as we'd like it to be, or thought it would/should be, it's happening.
Eichel came into the league as an 18 yr. old and had his wares on display from the get-go. After a 2015-16 season that showed his great potential, he was felled by injury two consecutive years then found himself in the middle of a team that was a train-wreck. Yet he continued to produce and incrementally upped his per-game production year-over-year. With the trade of Ryan O'Reilly in 2018, the Sabres officially became Eichel's team and there were some growing pains, both with him as a young captain and with the team as a whole, that culminated in a very disappointing 2018-19 season. This year those growing pains remained and really made a negative impression during the Sabres 0-4-2 slump where Eichel could only muster two goals and one assist when the team needed more.
Last night he came through.
"We needed our best players to step up and Jack showed a world-class performance today," said Sabres bench-boss Ralph Krueger to the gathered media post-game. "Just excellent leadership that he's also been showing, as I've told you, in the adversity of the last few weeks. It's the fruit of all that attitude that he had came out in the goals tonight."
Great for him and great for the team. But the next challenge comes tonight versus a Chicago Blackhawks team that is better than the Ottawa team they faced last night. Where Eichel takes it from here will be a strong indication of where his maturity-level is and whether or not he can truly lead this team out of the wilderness.
Another player that was expected to help lead the Sabres out of the wilderness is defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. The 19 yr. old native of Sweden is in his second NHL season and it would seem as if he bearing the full brunt of a sophomore slump. Dahlin has not looked good for most of the season so far and last night Krueger stapled him to the bench for the entire third period.
After the game Krueger matter-of-factly approached his decision. "He's a teenager," said the coach of Dahlin, "this is the very best league in the world. He's in a steep learning curve. We've had a lot of situations in the last few weeks that have been mentally draining on this team and we had to dig deep here today to get this win.
"We're making decisions for the team in the moment and it was a coaching room decision."
Dahlin's frustrations with what was transpiring around him came out when he was caught in his own end after turning the puck over. The fluid defenseman known more for his skating than hitting uncharacteristically started attacking Ottawa players to the point where it looked as if he was going to get a penalty. Nothing came of it but it showed that's how far from his game he was.
There's been a drop-off in Dahlin's performance and some would call it a steep. However, the teenager has been making the same mistakes this year as last, most notably in his own zone, and a lot of it seems to center around how he handles the puck. Time and space is at a premium in the NHL as opposed to the Swedish Hockey League and he's still having trouble adapting to that, especially in the D-zone where a defenseman can feel as if he's being swarmed by hornets or is trapped in a phone booth. Those situations are amplified when a player is struggling and the team is struggling. Add in the fact that Dahlin's still a teenager and you get a situation where he needed to be benched for the sake of the team and himself.
If anyone is thinks this is a treatise on a putting a bust label on Dahlin, it couldn't be further from the truth. As we've seen with Eichel, sometimes the maturity process takes a while and there are peaks and valleys along the way, especially for a teenage defenseman. Like Eichel, Dahlin still has that elite skating and skill-level and it's a matter of bringing that out on a consistent basis.
"Ras[mus] is an unbelievable player," said Eichel post-game when asked what he said to him on the bench in the third period. "He's such an important part of our team. The pressure and the expectations and everything that comes with being Rasmus Dahlin is not easy. You're gonna go through rough times. Everything's not butterflies and everything's not always easy.
"He's such a tremendous player, tremendous person, he works hard and he cares so much about this game and his team, I expect him to bounce back in a big way."
Spoken like a talented player who's been through similar struggles as a teenager.
Another Rasmus made his National Hockey League debut last night in the form of center Rasmus Asplund. Krueger had mentioned that they noticed him in training camp doing the things they wanted to see and the 21 yr. old got the call to Buffalo after playing a strong two-way game in Rochester where he scored eight points (1+7) in 13 games and had a plus-3 rating.
Asplund had a splendid debut that would only have been better if he scored. And he almost did. Shorthanded, no-less.
Regardless of that, Krueger called Asplund's debut, "outstanding," which those watching couldn't disagree with. "He was moving his feet all the time, both sides of the puck, the penalty kill, he was creating offensive chances, he played without fear and showed a lot of courage.
"It's what we saw in training camp and it was an exciting first game for, anybody."
Congrats to Asplund, may he keep it up and never give them a reason to send him back to Rochester.
Asplund joined Curtis Lazar as fresh faces in the forward ranks and both seamlessly fit right in with the Sabres. Those two will be joined by another new face this year in winger Tage Thompson, who will make his season debut against the Blackhawks.
Thompson was recalled this morning as a replacement for Kyle Okposo, who was felled by a Sens player during a line change last night. Okposo looked as if he'd been hit in the head which isn't a good sign for a player with a concussion history that includes a scary experience surrounding a one late in the 2016-17 season.
More will be known about Okposo's status soon but for now Thompson gets the call. The 22 yr. old played 65 games for the Sabres last season scoring 12 points (7+5) before being sent to Rochester to reset his game and his stint continued into this year as he was sent there after camp. Thompson heads to Buffalo tied for the Amerks team-lead in points with 12 (6+6) in 16 games.
Tonight the Sabres head to Chicago to face off against a Blackhawks team that they haven't had much success against. Buffalo is 1-5-4 in their last 10 games vs. the Hawks and an even worse 1-6-3 on the road. Although Chicago is struggling a bit by their lofty standards (8-7-4 on the season) they still have plenty of talent in the likes of future Hall of Famers Patrick Kane, Jonathan "Captain Serious" Toews and defenseman Duncan Keith which will be a problem for Buffalo.
The Blackhawks also have former Sabres Alexander Nylander who's coming off of a two-goal night in Nashville last night.
Nylander was part of a hockey trade that brought defenseman Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo in a one-for-one trade of former first round draft picks. The early returns had Buffalo and Jokiharju on the better side of the trade but with that performance last night, Nylander sits sixth on the Hawks in scoring with (4+5) nine points in 18 games and has an even rating.