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NHL Winter Classic

Eichel ready to take center stage for Sabres at Winter Classic

Forward will be in spotlight against Rangers at Citi Field

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- With frosty steam coming out of his mouth every time he exhaled, Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel took a moment to visually scan the vast outdoor theatre that is Citi Field on Sunday morning. 

The Sabres were midway through their final practice prior to the Bridgestone 2018 NHL Winter Classic against the New York Rangers on Monday (1 p.m., NBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) and Eichel, at 21 years old, was mentally absorbing every nook and cranny of the stage on whiich he will be performing.

It will, in fact, be the biggest stage of his career.

Eichel had some outstanding moments at Boston University and with the U.S. National Development Team, to be sure. He was part of the dynamic Team North America squad with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, a roster of players 23 and under that captured the hearts and imagination of hockey fans everywhere with its cache of young raw talent and speed.


[RELATED: Winter Classic making dreams come true for Rangers, Sabres]


Yet, Eichel, playing in his third NHL season, has more often than not been overshadowed. In 2015, it was by McDavid, who was drafted No.1, one slot ahead of him in the 2015 NHL Draft. In 2016-17, it was by Matthews, who won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie 90 miles up the road in Toronto while Eichel missed the first two months of the season with a high ankle sprain.

The stars are aligned for Eichel to shine in the spotlight Monday.

Here in North America's largest city, he'll be playing in front of more than 40,000 bundled-up fans, not to mention a national New Year's Day television audience on NBC. Live entertainment at Citi Field will include Buffalo's own Goo Goo Dolls, Ace Frehley and Max Weinberg & Max Weinberg's Jukebox, the quartet helmed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drummer -- and the driving rhythmic force propelling Bruce Springsteen's The E Street Band for 43 years.

Add it all up, and this event is a big deal.

Then again, so is Eichel.

Video: Eichel and Pominville on playing in Winter Classic

When the Sabres were shut out a franchise-record three consecutive times about a month ago -- 3-0 to the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 25; 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 28; 4-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 1 -- Eichel could easily have allowed his frustrations to fester. Instead, he has rebounded to carry the Sabres on his young shoulders, accruing 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in the subsequent 12 games.

"Jack took that to heart, those losses," Sabres first-year coach Phil Housley said. "From that point, Jack has really taken his play to another level, which is great to see. I think he is a leader, leads by example and you can see it in his play on the ice."

Asked what has changed, Eichel joked that he's removed a couple of vegetables out of his diet in the past five weeks.

So that's the biggest difference? What was it, the brussel sprouts?

"Just switched up some things," Eichel said, joking aside. "There were times I thought I was playing well and not getting rewarded. I thought the same for our team.

"I just think that the last few weeks we've been a more consistent team, shift in and shift out. It's made us more successful. Things have been successful but there still is a long way to go."

Having said that, Eichel certainly has come a long way from the patch of ice where he first honed his skills.

Unlike Citi Field, there was no Shake Shack beyond the left field wall at the pond in his hometown of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Come to think of it, there was no left field wall, period.

About 210 miles northeast of Citi Field, Chelmsford is everything New England, a Norman Rockwell painting come to life complete with homes that feature white picket fences and fluttering American flags in the front.

Tucked behind one of the town's fire stations is a pond that served as young Jack's sheet of dreams. On many a Friday afternoon during his childhood, Jack would be pulled out of school by his dad Bob and taken to the pond, where father and son would play hockey until the lights finally were turned off.

Here, there were no orange cones on the ice for practice drills. It was the sport at its purest form.

And all these years later, Eichel claims it helped make him the player he is today.

"That's where the game started and where the roots of this great game we play came from," Eichel said. "You can learn a lot. It's pretty amazing how much better you can get just by being on the ice with skates and sticks and a puck. You don't need a whole lot.

"I played a lot of pond hockey growing up and whether it was me by myself or with a big group of guys, it's always enjoyable and I had a lot of great times doing it."

His frozen stage will be a New York baseball stadium, not a New England pond, Monday. And, as they say in these parts, if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.

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