Word from the rink in Carolina is that Sabres captain Jack Eichel will be back in the lineup tonight. Eichel was out with an upperbody injury suffered prior to their December 31 game vs. the NY Islanders. The Sabres leading scorer took the ice against the Islanders but only played a couple of minutes before leaving the game. Eichel missed three full games and his team went 2-1-0 in his absence.
The cool part about Eichel being out and not having it be a total disaster is that we found out who on the team was ready to step up in his absence and one of those players earned a look on Eichel's line for tonight's game against the Hurricanes.
Tage Thompson started out the season slow and was a healthy scratch but received individual attention from the coaching staff while out of the lineup and took it all in. Since getting back into the lineup he's slowly ramped up his game and was consistently one of the best Buffalo Sabres on the ice in Eichel's absence. Head coach Phil Housley ended up moving Thompson to right wing in a top-six role and the 6'6" 205 lb. winger responded with 11 shots, a goal, an assist and a plus-1 rating in his last three games.
Thompson will join the Sabres leading scorer in Eichel (49 points) and their leading goal-scorer in Jeff Skinner.
The "Jeff Skinner Show" rolled on without Eichel in those three games as he continued his torrid pace. Skinner added three goals sans Eichel bringing his total to 29 on the year and is on pace for a career shattering 55 goals. He's knocking on the door of his fourth 30-goal season in his ninth year with his previous career high of 37 goals set in 2016-17.
Despite their 2-1-0 record without Eichel, having the captain back on the ice should be a huge boost to the team as he's their unquestioned leader and sets the tone for them. Without him the Sabres pulled out two solid wins against average teams in Florida and New Jersey but were stifled in a playoff-type game on the road at Boston and that's where Eichel makes a difference.
The Hurricanes have the longest current playoff drought in the NHL at nine seasons and the Buffalo Sabres are next at seven. Carolina has finished no higher than ninth in the Eastern Conference during their drought with 91 points (40-31-11) being their best season.
Buffalo has struggled mightily against the 'Canes, especially on the road as the Sabres are only 2-7-1 in their last 10 visits to the Tar Heel State. After sweeping the Hurricanes in 2015-16, Eichel's rookie season, the Sabres have lost their last six games to Carolina (0-5-1) and that includes Eichel's first NHL hat trick in a 5-4 overtime loss to the 'Canes on December 15, 2017.
Oddly enough, Skinner was a non-factor last season vs. the Sabres with zero points in three games.
Skinner and the Hurricanes mutually decided to part ways last off season and the Sabres were the beneficiary of that split. At least for this season. The 26 yr. old is a pending unrestricted free agent and with the numbers he's putting up, a big payday looms.
Why it came to this with the Hurricanes and Skinner is mostly between those two parties but we do know that Carolina never made the playoffs with him in the lineup despite the 2010, seventh-overall pick scoring 204 goals in 579 games for the club. Skinner came in like a hurricane scoring 31 goals and 63 points as an 18 yr. old while on his way to the 2011 Calder Trophy and "Rockstar" status in Raleigh with stories of him needing bodyguards as a 2011 All-Star with Carolina hosting the event.
Part of that "Rockstar" status came from how Skinner accented his feats on the ice with a charming smile and infectious, youthful exuberance that is still with him today. Those features endeared him to the "Caniacs" in Carolina as did his selfless outreach into the community and it's not hard to see that continue in whatever city he calls home. That home right now is in Buffalo where much to the delight of Sabres fans, Skinner was added to the All-Star team today bringing his young career full-circle as he visits his former team for the first time.
However, there's a game to be played tonight against an Eastern conference foe. Buffalo is ahead of Carolina in the standings by seven points and tonight's outcome could represent a four-point swing. In addition, the Sabres are in a three-way battle for a wild-card spot and only two points behind the Bruins in the Atlantic Division.
With things as tight as they are, Skinner could very well be the difference between Buffalo making he playoffs or not. After a glorious 10-game winning streak, things have tapered off for the team and they now find themselves in a precarious playoff spot. Yet Skinner continues to do his part. After scoring 10 goals in 10 games during the streak he tacked on another 10 goals in 18 post-streak games. The Sabres aren't exactly tearing up the league while averaging 2.84 goals/game (20th in the league,) so it might be safe to say that without him and his 29 goals, the Sabres wouldn't be where they are right now in the standings.
One should expect a very warm welcome from Carolina fans, a tribute of some kind at some point from the Hurricanes plus a lot of butterflies and emotion from Skinner. However, when the puck drops it all goes out the window.
One final note, with Eichel being activated the Sabres need to make a roster move. About all we know is that forward C.J. Smith, who is waivers-exempt, is on the trip and that other options for the club might be to waive forward Remi Elie or defenseman Matt Hunwick.