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Despite production, Eichel line sees a higher ceiling for itself

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

If you were to evaluate the top lines in the NHL from a productivity standpoint, it's hard to argue that the trio of Evander Kane, Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville has been among the League's best this season.

The three were together to start training camp in September, and while they haven't played together exclusively, they've been Buffalo's most consistent line in terms of both productivity and ice time. The trio also happens to be in a three-way tie for the Sabres lead with 12 points each. 

But they stack up well when looked at through a broader scope as well. According to corsica.hockey, the line has been on the ice for six goals at 5-on-5 strength this season. That mark ties them for 11th in the NHL with a handful of lines, including two they'll see on their upcoming road trip: Arizona's trio of Max Domi, Derek Stepan and Clayton Keller and Dallas' line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. 

Their six goals have come in 86.08 minutes of shared ice time. For comparison, Philadelphia's line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 12 even-strength goals in 144.05. In fact, eight of the 10 lines that rank ahead of Kane, Eichel and Pominville have skated 115-plus minutes together.

Video: SABRES NOW (11/1/17)

So given the fact that the numbers suggest the line has been among the NHL's elite, it was interesting to hear Eichel say Tuesday that there's another level of consistency they've yet to reach. Kane agreed with his assessment when asked on Wednesday.

"I think we've got some chances, I just think we need to capitalize better on them, myself included," Eichel said. "I'd like to see us be more consistent on a shift-to-shift basis of getting that sustained pressure in the offensive zone, continuing to successfully make our plays that we're trying to make. 

"It just takes time. You don't build chemistry overnight, you don t build it over the course of there week. It just takes time to figure out somebody's ins and outs of what they're thinking on the ice. I think we're trying to still do that now, and practice is a good time to get used to each other."

Eichel and Kane have skated together on lines at several points throughout the past two seasons, and their mutual skating ability has always made them a threat to outrace defenders on the rush. But this season, Eichel said, they've begun to understand each other's tendencies more than ever before.  

The duo showed that chemistry on their first shift of the game against San Jose on Saturday. Eichel skated hard down the left wing side into the offensive zone, and then stopped hard to create a passing lane across the ice. He found Kane wide open, but the shot was saved.

Kane agreed with the prospect of his and Eichel's chemistry being at an all-time high.

"For sure," Kane said. "I think kind of ever since training camp, we pretty much have been together most of [the season]. Just getting to know each other better helps build chemistry and we're good friends off the ice."

In the past when Kane and Eichel skated together, the line was often completed with Sam Reinhart on the right wing. With Reinhart playing mostly at center this season, Phil Housley used Pominville in that spot to open camp and saw Eichel feed him for a goal in their first preseason game.

Eichel said he knew Pominville had finishing ability just from watching him in the past and facing him over the last two seasons. He told him, "Just try to get me the puck and get open, I'll try and find you back." So far, the recipe has worked.

"I know that he's going to bury the chances that I give him," Eichel said. "He's done that consistently this year. You've got to credit the guy, he can score. If the puck's near him and he's letting it go, if he's in tight there, he's got great hands around the net, he picks his spots well and he's got a really quick release."

Pominville said early in camp that handling passes from Eichel would take some getting used to. Eichel called back to their first regular-season connection, in the opener against Montreal, to exemplify just how well Pominville has done in that regard:

Video: MTL@BUF: Pominville nets his second goal of the game

"It's a saucer pass, a pretty hard one too," Eichel said. "The angle on which it was coming down to him, for him to one-time it the way he did and get good wood on it and get it off the ice, it was an impressive shot. You can go on with a lot of the goals he had this year."

Upon being traded to the Sabres during the offseason, Pominville said he felt he had more to give than what was asked from him in Minnesota last season. He received an opportunity to prove that, and he's run with it - he has six goals in 12 games after scoring 12 in 78 last season, and his average ice time is up more than two full minutes.
 
No line is set in stone, of course. But given the productivity Kane, Eichel and Pominville have already displayed on the ice together, it's fun to think about what they could be when they are happy with their game.

"I'd just like to see it more shift after shift and be able to control the game a little bit better," Eichel said. "I think we can still try and get better at that, where we have more creativity, a little bit more holding onto the puck, finding each other, waiting for people to get open.

"… It doesn't necessarily have to be a goal or an assist. Just try to impact the team every time you're on the ice. If you have an opportunity to do that, then it usually bodes well for the team."

 

One more note on Pominville

Eichel was asked if Pominville seems his age (34), to which he offered a comparison to former Sabres captain Brian Gionta. Gionta was well-known for his rigorous pregame routine during his years in Buffalo. 

"He does a lot of things that remind me a lot of Gio, the way Gio would prepare each day for each practice," Eichel said. "He's definitely a pro. I think there's a lot of similarities, and that's a compliment to the two of them."

 

Baptiste recalled

Video: Phil Housley After Practice (11/1/17)

With Justin Bailey absent from practice and day-to-day with a lower-body injury, the Sabres recalled Nicholas Baptiste from Rochester on Wednesday morning. Baptiste is tied for the team lead with three goals in eight games with the Amerks this season.

Housley did not rule Bailey out for the team's game in Arizona on Thursday.

 

Lines at practice

9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 23 Sam Reinhart - 25 Seth Griffith
26 Matt Moulson - 22 Johan Larsson - 17 Jordan Nolan 

6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 5 Matt Tennyson
41 Justin Falk - 93 Victor Antipin (27 Taylor Fedun)

40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson

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