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Sabres' Eichel scores shorthanded in preseason debut

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Less than a week into his NHL career, Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel checked a bunch of firsts off his list in Buffalo's preseason opener against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Monday.

There was his first shift about a minute in. There were his first "oohs" and "ahhs," and later in the same shift, his first minus.

But there was also his first point, his first goal and eventually his first win in a 3-2 victory. The first impression he left was a good one too.

With the score still tied 2-2, Eichel, the second player selected at the 2015 NHL Draft, took a breakout pass from defenseman Cody Franson in alone on a shorthanded breakaway. He showed the patience, deking enough to open Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper's legs, then tucked the puck five-hole for the game-winning goal.

"These goalies are so big and athletic these days, you just try to move them and find little holes," Eichel said. "Luckily I was able to find one there."

His first big moment came 13 minutes into the first period, when the 18-year old center cruised down the left wing, making a nifty move around Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon to gain the offensive zone. The play didn't result in a scoring chance, but it was the first time fans in the NHL saw the type of game-breaking ability Eichel has.

"He’s everything that you hear," Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. "Steady, big, he's got a big, long reach, skates upright, slows the game down. Good player."

His inexperience was on display too.

After missing on the scoring chance, Minnesota came the other way, taking advantage of a tired Buffalo crew and Spurgeon exacted revenge, driving a slap shot past Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson for a 1-0 lead.

"I wish I would've shot it. It's a learning moment for me. Just get pucks to the net," Eichel said. "I don't know how I really fell into that move. I caught a nice pass in the neutral zone. It's a move I had worked on a little bit this summer. Too bad I ended up turning the puck over and they went down and scored."

In the third period, Eichel was perhaps the best player on the ice.

Less than two minutes in, his line entered the Wild zone on a 3-on-2 break. Zemgus Girgensons made a nice play along the wall to gain control, fed the puck to Eichel down the middle, who passed to a crashing Matt Moulson for the goal.

It's the type of goal Sabres fans hope to see from Girgensons and Eichel for years to come.

"I don't think he took a stride past the blue line," Moulson said. "He's got that smooth skating style and he's the type of player that doesn't come around too often.

"I'll take 20 of those off the feed from Jack. He's the type of player where if you get open, he's getting you the puck. His head for the game is tremendous and that goal he scored, to see him read the play, poke it out and I don't think there are too many guys that can catch him once he gets a step on them. He's a great player, easy to play with."

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said he was impressed with Eichel's play in his own end as he was with his offensive abilities.

"Out of the 17 games I've seen him play, it was probably the best I've ever seen him play without the puck," Bylsma said. "He tracked back extremely hard, on turnovers he came back and was hard in the D zone. That's something we talked about before the game, and he was extremely good at it."

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