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Eichel seeks consistency with Sabres after witnessing Blues win Cup

'It was one of the cooler things I've ever seen,' Buffalo captain says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

CHICAGO -- Jack Eichel sat in the stands, 10 rows off the ice at TD Garden, when the St. Louis Blues defeated the Boston Bruins 4-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 12.

He had grown up in the Boston area and played a season at Boston University. But that wasn't why he went.

Once the Buffalo Sabres selected him No. 2 in the 2015 NHL Draft, he stopped being a Bruins fan, and now he was 22 years old, the captain of the Sabres, coming off his fourth NHL season. He had friends on the Bruins and a friend on the Blues, former Sabres teammate Ryan O'Reilly.

 

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"I wanted to go for the experience," Eichel said at the NHL Player Media Tour on Friday. "It was a great experience. I knew I was going to get to see a friend of mine hoist the Stanley Cup."

Eichel watched the clock count down and the Blues mob each other in the silent arena. After he saw O'Reilly get his turn with the Cup, he went home.

"Just seeing the celebration and the emotion that was shown from the guys, I think makes you want it that much more," he said. "I mean, it just seemed like … It was one of the cooler things I've ever seen."

The inspiration was obvious.

The Blues entered the NHL in 1967 and finally won the Cup for the first time. Who has waited the longest to win the Cup for the first time now? The Sabres and Vancouver Canucks, who entered the League in 1970.

St. Louis went crazy, fans flooding the streets for the games and eventually the parade. Can you imagine what it would be like in Buffalo?

"Of course you think about it, right?" Eichel said. "You see the postgame celebrations, the fans, the crowd, everything like that, and you just want it that much more. That's the ultimate goal. That's why you play hockey. That's why you do everything you do, to try to do that."

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It might seem like the Sabres are far away. They have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for eight seasons, the longest drought in the NHL.

Last season, they went on a 10-game winning streak and were No. 1 in the NHL at 17-6-2 the morning of Nov. 28, and it turned out to be a bad thing because it raised expectations too far too fast. They went 16-33-8 the rest of the way and finished 27th.

"It's not easy, for sure," Eichel said. "We had an expectation for ourselves, and I think you start talking about winning 10 games, you're first in the League, everything like that happens, it's tough, right? Because then I think everyone else's expectations grow so exponentially."

But expectations should rise, at least at a reasonable rate. The Sabres have a new coach, Ralph Krueger, signed forward Jeff Skinner to an eight-year contract after he scored 40 goals last season, and have dynamic young players like Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

Eichel's point total has gone from 56 to 57 to 64 to 82. Now he wants his goal total to increase after scoring 24-28 goals each season.

"I have a lot of shots," said Eichel, who had 303 last season, fifth in the NHL. "But sometimes I'll pass up opportunities to get the puck to the net. I wouldn't say I'm a pass-first guy, but I'm definitely a setup guy, right? I think the latter half of the year just trying to shoot different places, get it off quicker, maybe."

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Dahlin, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, had 44 points (nine goals, 35 assists) and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

"I have big expectations for him," Eichel said. "If you think about how good he was last year in Year One and how much more confident and how much more he knows now, I think he's primed to have a pretty monster season. I'm really excited to watch him.

"I think he just gave people a glimpse of how good he's going to be. I think he has a quiet confidence to him, but I honestly still wonder if he knows how good he's going to be."

Eichel has seen the end goal, live, in person, with his own eyes. Now he and the Sabres need to approach it a step at a time.

"I think, for us, it's pretty simple," Eichel said. "You try to have a good camp, right? And then after a good camp, you try to have a good start. And then you try to maintain that. And you just try to get better every day.

"Unfortunately last season, we started well and we ended bad. You look at St. Louis, they did the complete opposite. It's a long season, and a lot goes into it, and consistency is one of the most important things in this league. So we've got to find that."

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