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Sabres forward Jack Eichel scores in NHL debut

by Tim Wharnsby

BUFFALO -- Not everyone can score on his first NHL shift like Mario Lemieux did 31 years ago, when the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie picked the pocket of Ray Bourque for an incredible beginning to a Hall of Fame career.

Buffalo Sabres rookie Jack Eichel needed 23 shifts to score in his NHL debut, a 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators at First Niagara Center on Thursday.

After an unremarkable first two periods, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft came to life to score Buffalo's goal 9:11 into the third period.

"Yeah, it was a pretty special moment for me," the 18-year-old said. "Today was my Dad's [55th] birthday. I have a lot of family in town, so it was a special moment for me to score my first one today.

"A win definitely would have capped it off, but you can't have everything."

With the Sabres trailing 2-0 and on a power play, Marcus Foligno slid a pass to Eichel, who was at the side of the net. He was patient against Senators goalie Craig Anderson and lifted the puck.

"Great shot, more or less it was a 2-on-0 at the net," said Anderson, who had a scouting report on Eichel from Senators backup goalie Matt O'Connor, Eichel's teammate at Boston University last season.

"I saw [Foligno] pass it across. There was nobody out front, so I assumed [Eichel] was coming from behind the net. I got over there and thought I was pretty square, I was probably still not 100 percent square to him, and he made a great shot just underneath the bar.

"[O'Connor] said he's really good at that. Tip your hat to the guy and congrats for his first goal."

Eichel stated many times before Thursday he didn't feel anxious and he was going to treat his debut like any other game. But his struggle to make an impact in the first two periods showed that maybe nerves did get the better of him.

He was tentative and failed to use his skating ability and 6-foot-2, 201-pound frame. But that changed in the third period after Bylsma lashed out at his players during the second intermission.

"I don't think Jack was singled out," Bylsma said when asked if he talked to Eichel about his play.

"We didn't see him skate in the first two periods. We didn't see him use his speed. But again, that was like our entire team. The third period was a lot different. He's big bodied. He won pucks with his size and speed and his long reach."

On his next shift after his goal, Eichel came close to another when he slipped past Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson but could only poke the loose puck at Anderson.

"I picked the puck and tried to make a move," Eichel said. "It's tough for a defenseman in that situation. When you put the puck behind them, they can't interfere with you."

Eichel played 21:58 on 28 shifts, had three shots on goal, and won six of 12 faceoffs. The native of North Chelmsford, Mass., began the game on the second line with Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane. Reinhart was replaced with Foligno, and Zemgus Girgensons took a few shifts in Rehinhart's spot.

"In the first two periods, it was his first NHL game, you have to get your feet wet," Kane said of Eichel. "I know he said he wasn't nervous, but I'm sure he was. That's the way it always works. I thought he settled in and got going in the third. He scored a big goal and that was great to see."

Kane tried to help out the 2015 Hobey Baker Award winner by talking to him on the bench as much as possible.

"There was a little bit of nerves at the beginning," Eichel said. "It was my first game and something you dreamed of your whole life. As I shook it off during the game, I started to get a little better. But obviously there are a lot of things to work on.

"I think a lot of it was moving my feet away from the puck. I did a little better at that in the third period. We played with more pace.

"I'll never forget it, but it's tough to enjoy it when you don't win."

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