BUFFALO -- It already has been a memorable first NHL season for Buffalo Sabres rookie Jack Eichel, and now he'll get to show off his skills for the first time before a national audience on Hockey Day in America.
Eichel will lead the Sabres against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN) at First Niagara Center. In a career already highlighted by being selected second in the 2015 NHL Draft, it will be a big moment for the 19-year-old from North Chelmsford, Mass.
"It's always a great day for sports in our country and a great way to celebrate it," Eichel said. "I'm excited about it. It's a big test; it's a big game for our team. You know, the Pens have been playing really well lately so it's going to be a tough test for us. But I'm excited about it and anxious to get the get the game going."
The Sabres have won three of their past four games and two straight in regulation at home. The last time the Sabres won three consecutive home games in regulation was March 2011, when they won four straight. A big reason for the Sabres' recent success is Eichel.
Since Dec. 17 he has eight goals and 27 points in 27 games. His 41 points this season are second among rookies, behind Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin, entering games Saturday.
"Looking at Jack's year, you look at games 20 through 40 and there was a bit of a dip in his game," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "There was the frequency of the games, the number of the games he was playing. He had the break at Christmas time and came back, and since that time we're looking at roughly a point-per-game pace and probably a much higher level of consistency in his play from game-to-game."
A rough start for a player with the kind of expectations facing Eichel could have made his season a lot more difficult in some situations. Fortunately for Eichel, he's part of a young team that has rallied around each other through a season in which the players have come together while learning new systems from a new coach.
"Jack's a very, very high-class player," Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "If you get a chance to get to know him he's a funny person. He's energetic, charismatic; he's fun to be around."
Getting back in the hunt for the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year hasn't been easy for Eichel, who has had to learn on the fly what it's like to be a professional.
"I don't know what it's been," Eichel said. "Just my attitude, I think, I've changed overall. I just might come to the rink a lot happier every day and just try to enjoy everything and that's what you should do. And I've been lucky to get in a lot of really good situations. Power plays helped a lot (he has six power-play goals). It gets you engaged in the game and it gets the puck on your stick.
"But you know, I've been lucky. I mean, I play with [Jamie McGinn] a lot and he does so many good things for me and opens so many things up for me, and obviously playing with [Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson]; those are guys that I think feed off me and I feed off them. So I'm just trying to simplify things and use my speed. Just consistency; I think that was a big thing at the beginning of the year. I'd have a good game and then not have two good games and then have a good one. So I think I'm just trying to bring it every night."
Eichel has brought it every night recently; he has a four-game point streak and at least one point in five of his past six games. Now he'll get to bring it to a national audience for the first time as one of America's top talents.