Jack Eichel knew it had been a long time since the Buffalo Sabres had beaten the Chicago Blackhawks.
Exactly how long he wasn't sure, but Eichel was quick to point out following a win at KeyBank Center on Saturday afternoon that it was the first time he had been a part of a victory against the franchise with three Stanley Cups in the last decade. For him, it was just icing on the cake.
Eichel tallied an assist and skated 18:14 in his return from a 15-game absence due to a high-ankle sprain while a pair of third-period goals from Nicholas Baptiste propelled the Sabres to a 5-3 win over the Blackhawks. Afterward, he expressed how happy he was just to be back on the ice, competing with his teammates.
"It was just a lot of fun to get out there and play again," Eichel said. "That was the biggest thing. I just really enjoy it. I enjoy playing the game, no matter what time of the year it is, who we're playing, where we're playing. It's just a lot of fun to be out on the ice with these guys. It just feels great to get back out there and compete."
Video: EICHEL: Postgame
Chicago took a 3-2 lead just 20 seconds into the third period on a goal from Jonathan Toews, who broke for a 2-on-1 rush off the opening draw and buried his own rebound past Buffalo goaltender Chad Johnson. It could have set a familiar stage for the Sabres, who last beat the Blackhawks on Dec. 11, 2010, when Patrick Lalime was in net.
Instead, Buffalo's leadership group on the bench reinforced the message that there was still ample time to right the ship. Baptiste credited the team's veterans with steering the game in the right direction, but it was a trio of players that spent time in Rochester this season that ultimately got the job done.
The line of Baptiste, Evan Rodrigues and Justin Bailey provided the Sabres with speed and energy in the third period, and all three players were on the ice when Baptiste scored to tie the game less than two minutes after Toews' goal. Nathan Beaulieu took a shot from the point with both Baptiste and Bailey positioned in front of Blackhawks goalie J.F. Berube, and Baptiste was able to connect on the deflection.
Video: CHI@BUF: Baptiste tips Beaulieu's shot past Berube
"I thought we were flying, we were really going in that third period," Baptiste said. "It's exciting, we're all three guys who are trying to establish ourselves in the NHL. We're … hard to defend against. You have lots of movement like that and now we're making plays, it's hard to stop."
Baptiste had his mom and his brother in the stands, and it was the first time either had seen him score an NHL goal in person. He decided to double down on that with 1:56 remaining when, upon the conclusion of a Buffalo power play, he was able to deflect a Marco Scandella shot past Berube for the game-winning goal.
Sam Reinhart scored into an empty net with 38.4 seconds remaining.
"That's been a focus of our team that last little while is just getting shots to the net, getting bodies to the net and scoring some ugly ones," Baptiste said. "We got a couple tonight. That's what it takes to score goals in this league and win."
Video: CHI@BUF: Baptiste tips home PPG for late lead
Buffalo and Chicago traded goals in the first two periods. Benoit Pouliot opened the scoring for Buffalo on a feed from Rasmus Ristolainen with 1:50 remaining in the first, while Ryan O'Reilly buried the rebound of a shot on the power play from Eichel in the second. Jordan Oesterle and Tomas Jurco scored for Chicago.
O'Reilly, who has now scored 20 goals in all three of his seasons as a Sabre, said Eichel's presence could be felt throughout the game.
"It's so nice to have him back," he said. "Gosh, he's just, the little things he does when he gets the puck, you feel like the whole building is like, 'OK, what's he going to do?' The other team has to be so sharp when he's out there and it makes us a more dangerous team. … It's tough coming back off an injury like that and he did well, it was big."
Video: CHI@BUF: O'Reilly crashes the net for power-play goal
The Sabres had a brief scare in the third period when Eichel appeared to tweak his ankle, but he was able to recover in time for his next shift. He finished the afternoon with a game-high 11 shot attempts, including five shots on goal.
"Last year dealing with the injury and what goes with it, you know you're going to tweak it," he said. "It's not an if thing, it's a when thing. You just want to get it to the point where you're not thinking about it on the ice. I thought maybe in the first period I was a little hesitant, it's my first game in five weeks, but I thought as the game went on I started to feel more comfortable, started to kind of forget about it and just play."
Eichel said he made the decision to play after practice on Friday, his fourth time on the ice with the team. He was cautious not to come back too soon, but Phil Housley had stressed all along that Eichel's intention was always to come back and play before the end of the season, if possible.
Seeing the joy on his face after the game, it was easy to see why. Earning a win over Chicago made it that much better.
"Obviously, I love the outcome," he said. "It's a big win.
Girgensons leaves with injury
Zemgus Girgensons left the game with 8:41 remaining in the first period and did not return after sustaining an injury during a collision along the boards. Housley had no further update on the forward's condition after the game.
Girgensons has 12 points (7+5) in 64 games this season. The Sabres are already without Kyle Okposo (day-to-day, concussion) and Jacob Josefson (week-to-week, lower body) at forward.
Reinhart stays hot
Reinhart is one player who stepped up his game in Eichel's absence, and he didn't slow down on Saturday. The forward tallied a pair of assists in addition to his empty-net goal, giving him 29 points (12+17) in his last 27 games and 42 points overall. It's his third-straight season scoring 40-plus points.
Pfalzer drops the puck
Olympic gold medalist and Buffalo native Emily Pfalzer was on hand for a ceremonial puck drop, joined by USA Hockey alums Eichel and Patrick Kane. She joined Brian Duff to discuss her path to the Olympics and her experience in PyeongChang, which you can watch below:
Video: Emily Pfalzer on the pregame show
Phil Housley will face his former team for the first time when the Sabres welcome the Nashville Predators to KeyBank Center on Monday. Coverage on MSG-B begins at 6:30 p.m., or you can listen live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7.