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Eichel, Sabres full of hope, promise for future

Spirited win against Maple Leafs, signing of Mittelstadt has center excited to help Buffalo take next step

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Jack Eichel could not stop grinning. 

There was a party-like atmosphere in the Buffalo Sabres dressing room Monday. The music was loud and Sabres players were whooping it up. They had just defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 to end Toronto's 13-game home winning streak, the longest in Maple Leafs history. The victory at Air Canada Centre also ended Buffalo's four-game losing streak, when the Sabres were outscored 16-2.

"How could you not enjoy this?" said Eichel, the 21-year-old Buffalo center.

Eichel is the face of the Sabres; on many occasions, it's one that has sported a scowl of frustration that goes hand in hand with losing. Since being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel has yet to play a Stanley Cup Playoff game. This will be the seventh consecutive time Buffalo will miss the postseason.

Video: BUF@TOR: Eichel puts Sabres ahead with second goal

So why was this man smiling?

This was a rare good day for the Sabres, who were basking in the optimism of the moment.

Earlier Monday, they signed Casey Mittelstadt, the University of Minnesota center they selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft, to a three-year entry-level contract. And then, Eichel scored two goals in the win against the Maple Leafs.  

Eichel wants to feel this way more often.  

"I still consider myself a young guy but I've been here a few years and I like to consider myself one of the leaders as well, and someone who needs to lead by example," he said. "In tough times, you've got to bear down.

"We've got to get this thing turned around here. It's been a tough few years. It's a big win [against Toronto], but overall we need to take the right steps to get in the right direction and get away from this losing habit here. I thought tonight was a good example of what we can do when we put our heads down and bear down."

Eichel had not scored a goal since Feb. 8. He missed 15 games with a high ankle sprain after being injured in a 4-2 victory at the Boston Bruins on Feb. 10.

"I hadn't scored in a month and a half," Eichel said. "It's been a little bit. I think I've been gripping my stick a little bit. Maybe trying to make the cute play. I figured I would just simplify things.

"I think you always want to find optimism. You always want to look at things in the positive. It's been a tough road here so far. But I think it starts with me and the other leaders on the team."

Video: BUF@TOR: Eichel beats Andersen with slick move

Eichel said Sabres coach Phil Housley challenged the Sabres, who came into Toronto with one win in their previous seven games (1-5-1). 

"I've got to hand it to our guys," Housley said. "They went through some tough times here, but they found a way to win. I thought Jack's game all night was terrific. He really brought it from start to finish, and it was great to see him step up.

"The last few games we took a step back. But in this one we found a way. It's exciting. Casey's going to be part of this organization in the future, but I just liked the way we played against Toronto."

Mittelstadt, 19, had 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 34 games for Minnesota. He was the leading scorer for the United States at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and was named tournament MVP, helping the U.S. to a bronze medal.

"I think moving forward, it's awesome that we get a player back like Casey," Eichel said. "You just want to build in the right direction. Obviously, he's going to be a part of our future and we're excited about it."

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