Jack Eichel felt he had been trying to do a bit too much with his scoring opportunities as of late, so he came into the Buffalo Sabres' matchup with Dallas Stars on Monday afternoon with a simple mindset: shoot the puck.
It paid off. Eichel took 13 shot attempts, including a career-high 10 shots on goal, and scored twice in Buffalo's 4-1 win over Dallas. It was a good all-around game for the Sabres, one that featured a dramatic return for Tyler Ennis and a 60-minute performance in which the Sabres stuck to their game plan to stymie a fast Stars offense.
But the story begins with Eichel, whose performance was an ideal example of the many he ways he can impact a game. He'd already taken seven shots by the time he scored to extend Buffalo's lead to 3-1 on the power play in the second period, and he was rewarded again when he outraced the pack to score an empty-net goal in the waning seconds of the game. The goal was his 10th of the season.
Video: Jack Eichel on the postgame show
"I told myself if I came out here and shot the puck a lot, I think I'd get one," he said.
"I think in the past few games, [I was] just trying to be a little too cute on opportunities I can fire it and you're not going to score unless you shoot it."
It wasn't only shooting and scoring where Eichel excelled on Tuesday. He put his speed on display at several points of the game, including once on a drive through the neutral zone and to the net in the first period that drew a hooking call against the Stars' Radek Faksa. It was on that power play when Jake McCabe scored Buffalo's second goal, his first of the season.
Video: DAL@BUF: McCabe capitalizes on turnover for PPG
Eichel was also reliable in the faceoff circle, where he won a career-high 13 draws in 19 attempts.
He was noticeably comfortable having been reunited with Sam Reinhart as his linemate. Reinhart had a memorable game himself, setting up a number of chances throughout the night with passes through traffic in the offensive zone. He earned the primary assist on Eichel' power-play goal, twice jamming the puck off the pad of Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen before sliding the puck across the crease to Eichel.
Video: DAL@BUF: Eichel jams in rebound for power-play goal
That assist was Reinhart's 19th in 43 games this season, already matching his rookie total from all of 2015-16.
"Obviously I think he's taken that next step just with his confidence playing with the puck," Eichel said. "He's been a lot more physical I think, not as much without the puck but with it, just making it harder on the opposing team to take it away from him. He makes a great play on that goal and he's able to just push it over to me for an empty net."
As a team, Eichel felt the Sabres corrected most of the areas that had plagued them in losses at Tampa Bay and Carolina. Buffalo went 2-for-3 on the power play - which coach Dan Bylsma said might have been their best performance of the season - 1-on-1 on the penalty kill and, perhaps most importantly, they were able to protect their lead after scoring first.
The Sabres knew Dallas thrived off speed and a tendency to make long plays up the ice, so they focused on sustaining pressure in the offensive zone to force turnovers when the Stars tried to be aggresive. It worked right away, with a strong forecheck by Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo leading to a goal for Ennis 19 seconds into the game (more on that below).
Dallas only bested the Sabres once, when a takeaway at the blue line turned into a goal for Faksa with 4:46 remaining in the first period. Patrick Eaves did appear to tie the game in the second period, but his goal was called back after a successful coach's challenge for an off side entry.
Robin Lehner was sharp in his return from a three-game absence due to the flu, stopping 31 shots.
The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Sabres, but it wasn't quite enough to satisfy Eichel.
"It's a good team win," Eichel said. "We just need to build off of it. It needs to happen again tomorrow night."
Ennis scores in return
Perhaps even more amazing than the fact that Ennis scored 19 seconds into his return from a 30-game absence is the fact that he nearly made an even more memorable play in the second period. It was the type of creativity that those who have followed Ennis' career have become accustomed to: he carried the puck behind the net, lifted it into the air on his backhand and attempted to flip it into the corner of the net from behind.
Eichel said the players on the bench didn't immediately realize what Ennis had attempted to do. When they did, he said, Ennis simply told them he "blacked out and tried it."
"He's been skating a lot for quite a long time trying to work his way back from his injury, and he has tried, he actually pulls that lacrosse move off quite often," Bylsma said. "To have the presence of mind to try and do that in a game where there was grown men out there trying to crush you, it just shows kind of where the comfort level he's at, the ease he's at."
Ennis said in recent days that he's at his best when he's playing with confidence, a point he reiterated after the game on Monday. To that end, his early goal certainly couldn't have hurt. Okposo picked up the puck in the offensive zone off of a Stars turnover and quickly passed back to Ennis, who skated alone down the right wing. Ennis initially looked to feed O'Reilly, but instead shot to the far side and scored.
Video: DAL@BUF: Ennis picks the corner for an early lead
Seeing Ennis smile after that goal was a welcome sight for his teammates. He's been out since undergoing groin surgery on Nov. 10 after being limited to just 23 games last season due to multiple injuries, including a season-ending concussion.
"I think he's just getting his feet underneath him, really, too," Bylsma said. "But you see it right off the hop, and that was not the only [time]. There was a couple other plays that that line made together that they were dangerous on. They could've had another goals, opportunities to score anyways. You hope that's just another air in the quiver to have in your team's offense."
Ennis concurred that there's another level of "pop" his skating can still reach, and admitted he felt a bit rusty of to begin the game. But the goal he scored was a good start, and the one he didn't, well, trying again will give him something to look forward to.
"I wish that one went in," Ennis said. "I had some room so, pretty frustrated, but maybe one day one will go in."
The Sabres will conclude yet another back-to-back set when they meet the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night. It will be the second of five meetings between the two teams this season, with Toronto having won the first game in Buffalo 2-1 on Nov. 3.
"It's a good test for us. Toronto's been, obviously, really hot lately," Eichel said. "We've just got to go up there and play similar to the way we did tonight and we should be successful."
Coverage on Tuesday begins at 7 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Maple leafs at 7:30.