PITTSBURGH -- Lost in the discussion of Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma returning to face the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time is a matchup of two of the best centers from the past decade against possibly one of the best of the decade to come.
When Bylsma takes his place behind the Sabres bench at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, BELL TV, ROOT), he will do so with rookie center Jack Eichel in his arsenal. The 19-year-old will compete against the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first time, and Eichel is anticipating the opportunity.
"I watched them a lot and they're great players to watch," Eichel said. "I played against Malkin at the [2015 IIHF] World Championships [with the United States]. It was a good experience for me and it was good to get that in. They're not easy to play against but I look forward to the task."
Eichel hasn't started his career with the same immediate impact Crosby and Malkin experienced when they entered the NHL. In nine games Eichel has three goals; Crosby had two goals and 12 points in his first nine NHL games in 2005-06, Malkin had seven goals and 12 points in his first nine games in 2006-07.
"I really haven't accomplished anything," Eichel said. "I'm just another guy on the Sabres right now. I'm just trying to become a better player and help us win games. … There's pressure whenever there's expectations. But I think so far I've done a good job of handling it and I haven't really let it bother me."
Eichel's numbers are more impressive when compared to Crosby's output through nine games this season. He has been one goal and two assists, and has been held without a point eight times.
Bylsma knows Crosby well after coaching him for parts of six seasons. He realizes Crosby isn't currently playing up to his standard, but Bylsma said he remains afraid of Crosby's ability to ignite.
"It's something we tried to state to Sid while with the Penguins," Bylsma said. "It doesn't matter. We're scared of his ability to score right now, whether he's scoring or not. So it's not going well right now; we're scared of how it can be. And we have to shut down how it can be."
Bylsma said his familiarity with Crosby and Malkin could make him more frightened than the average coach when he faces them Thursday.
"It makes it more scary than anything," Bylsma said. "I've had a few games against Sid and [Malkin] in international competition and it's not a pleasant thing to look over and see 87 or 71 on the opposition. They're two of the greatest players and we’re charged with stopping them tonight."
Pittsburgh, which did not hold a morning skate Thursday, scored more than two regulation goals for the first time this season in a 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.
Here are the projected lineups:
Nicolas Deslauriers - Ryan O'Reilly - Tyler Ennis
Johan Larsson - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Matt Moulson - Zemgus Girgensons - Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno - David Legwand - Jamie McGinn
Josh Gorges - Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe - Cody Franson
Mike Weber - Mark Pysyk
Injured: Evander Kane (knee), Zach Bogosian (lower body), Cody McCormick (blood clot), Robin Lehner (high ankle sprain)
Scratched: Carlo Colaiacovo, Tim Schaller
Pascal Dupuis - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist
David Perron - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Chris Kunitz - Nick Bonino - Beau Bennett
Kevin Porter - Matt Cullen - Daniel Sprong
Ian Cole - Kris Letang
Olli Maatta - Rob Scuderi
Ben Lovejoy - Brian Dumoulin
Injured: Eric Fehr (elbow), Bryan Rust (undisclosed)
Scratched: Adam Clendening, Sergei Plotnikov
Status report: Zatkoff most likely will start for Pittsburgh for the first time this season. His last NHL game was Dec. 23, 2014, when he played 36 minutes in relief of Fleury against the Tampa Bay Lightning. His most recent NHL start was April 13, 2014, against the Ottawa Senators. … Weber will return to Buffalo's lineup after missing the past two games, Bylsma said. Colaiacovo will be a healthy scratch. … Bogosian, who has not played this season, skated before practice but is not ready to return to the lineup.
Who’s hot: Kessel has scored the game-winning goal in the Penguins' last two games. He leads the Penguins with four goals, one more than Malkin … Girgensons' first goal of the season was an impactful one. The Buffalo center scored 2:29 into overtime to secure a 4-3 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.