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Scorer's mentality paying off for Eichel

Okposo, Rodrigues to travel to Calgary

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Jack Eichel left the penalty box during the Buffalo Sabres' home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs last Friday and found the puck waiting for him along the defensive blue line.

He scooped it up and gained momentum as he rushed through the neutral zone. Marcus Johansson skated on the opposite side of the ice as Eichel drifted into the right faceoff circle and fired a wrist shot between the pads of goaltender Michael Hutchinson. It was his 15th goal of the season. His 16th came on an empty net that night.

Goal No. 17 came three days later, against New Jersey on Monday. Eichel found himself alone at the net-front and buried a one-time shot from point-blank range, once against beating the goalie between the pads. 

"I've been kind of shooting low," Eichel said. "I feel like in the past, I've had a lot of opportunities and just passed them by just missing the net.

"... You try and go high and miss the net, you don't give yourself a chance to score or maybe someone else a chance to score. You don't know what's going to happen. Just trying to shoot different places, I think, and knowing that sometimes it doesn't matter how hard you get it off. It's just about surprising the goalie."

Video: TOR@BUF: Eichel pots wrist shot on odd-man rush

Eichel said on the opening day of training camp that he wanted to score more goals in his fifth season. To say he's on pace to do so through 28 games is an understatement. He's averaging .61 goals per game, putting him on pace for 49 over a full season. His current career-high is 28, set in 77 games last season. 

His 17 goals are tied with Nathan MacKinnon for sixth in the NHL. Thirteen of those have come at even strength, tied with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and David Pastrnak for fourth in the league. 

The scoring mentality hasn't taken away from Eichel's playmaking ability, either. He's on pace for 61 assists, which would surpass the career-high of 54 he set last season. 

So, what's led to the success? Eichel isn't exactly shooting more; his shots per game average of 3.71 is slightly below the career-high mark he set last season. But his shooting percentage is up significantly, from 9.2 to 16.3. 

Eichel's mentality of trusting his shot and looking to surprise the goaltender is evident when you look back at his 17 goals. For example, he went five-hole streaking down the right-wing side against Toronto, but it's hardly his only option from that spot. 

He can fend off a defender 1-on-1 and pick the near-side corner, as he did against Ottawa for goal No. 9. 

Video: OTT@BUF: Eichel snipes short side goal in the 2nd

Or he can bury a shot off the far-side post, like he did for goal No. 14 in Florida. 

Video: BUF@FLA: Eichel dekes defender, buries wrister

It's just one part of the well-rounded game Eichel continues to improve upon from year to year. He's drawn 13 penalties at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick.com - one behind league leader Dylan Larkin. Coach Ralph Krueger has spoken glowingly about his commitment on defense. 

Off the ice, Krueger has seen the 23-year-old continue to grow into his role as captain. 

"I think more than anything he's now a leader who understands that sometimes it's quality over quantity, and he can still concentrate on his game," Krueger said.  

"… He's just been a very natural captain, he's enjoying it, he's communicating in a really good, consistent way and he's very positive in his influence on the team whether we've had a good day or a bad, and that's what we need to continue."

To that end, Eichel remains even keeled when discussing his personal performance, too. He's happy to be scoring more goals, but he'll also be the first to remind you that this is early December, not April. 

"It's been a good start in terms of finding the back of the net," he said. "I just want to keep it going. It's all about consistency and bringing it every night."

 

Off to Calgary

Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Ralph Krueger

The Sabres departed Wednesday for their three-game swing through Western Canada, which begins Thursday in Calgary. Forwards Kyle Okposo (concussion) and Evan Rodrigues (lower body) both traveled with the team, while Jean-Sebastien Dea was assigned to Rochester. 

Rasmus Dahlin stayed in Buffalo as he continues to work his way back from a concussion, though Krueger said the defenseman has taken positive steps in his recovery. 

Okposo remains day-to-day. Rodrigues is expected to be available on the trip, though the option exists to remain with the lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen that had led to victories in two of the last three games. 

Krueger believes the 11-7 lineup has helped the forwards toward the bottom of the lineup stay engaged as they pick up extra shifts. The defensemen, meanwhile, are staying fresh and turning in quality minutes as a result. 

"It definitely spreads out the load," Krueger said. "All players in the National Hockey League want high minutes. That's their goal and they should be hungry for those minutes. But we need to see the quality of the minutes, and we felt the quality of the minutes of the D through that difficult stretch remained extremely constant and high and the synergy in the groups."

Coverage of Thursday's game on MSG begins at 8:30 p.m. EST, with puck drop scheduled for 9. 

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