BOSTON – As opposed to the hour-long flight that his teammates took to arrive at TD Garden on Saturday morning, Jack Eichel had a much simpler commute. He got in the car and drove to the rink, a roughly 30-mile trip from his hometown of North Chelmsford, Massachusetts.
Participation in the IIHF World Junior Championship, which begins annually on Dec. 26, had kept Eichel away on holidays past. This year, now that he's in the NHL and thanks to the League's annual break, the Buffalo Sabres rookie was finally able to spend Christmas at home.
"It was great," he said after Buffalo's morning skate. "It's nice to wake up in your own house on Christmas and be with your family and see a lot of people you haven’t seen in a while."
Those same people will be in attendance Saturday night when the Sabres play the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. It's Eichel's first NHL game in his hometown, but it certainly won't be the first memory he's made in the building.
He still has vivid recollections of being in the stands. His first visit to the rink was on his fourth birthday; Mats Sundin scored for the Toronto Maple Leafs in that game to beat the Bruins in overtime. File that one under "Bad Memory."
Eichel was also in attendance on Feb. 9, 2011, when six fights broke out in a 14-goal game between the Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. (He didn't mention that Sabres captain Brian Gionta, then a Canadien, scored his 200th-career goal in the 8-6 loss for Montreal.)
But for each memory that Eichel's made in the seats at TD Garden, there are others he's made on the ice. You don't have to search too far back to find them, either. Just last year, as a freshman at Boston University, Eichel and the Terriers won the Beanpot (an annual tournament between four of Boston's Division-I hockey programs) and the Hockey East Tournament Championship.
It was also the ice on which BU lost to Providence in the National Championship in April.
"This is exciting for me," Eichel said. "There's going to be so many family and friends here. Growing up, going to the Bruins game, you dream of playing at the Garden and I'm going to be able to do it for the first time against the Bruins. I'm just really excited about it."
Eichel admitted there might be nerves – there are nerves before every game, he said – but he plans to treat the game like any other on the ice. There's also the chance that it provides an extra boost to his game, and his coach, Dan Bylsma, will be watching closely.
"He probably will be starting this one," Bylsma said. "You kind of just keep an eye on the situation. Maybe a situation of being back in front of the hometown, his first time back here in Boston, it might be one where we do ride him."
Coverage of the 7 p.m. contest begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
It will be another homecoming of sorts for Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson, who will start for the third time against his former team. Johnson, who played for the Bruins during the 2013-14 season, stopped 64 of 68 shots (.941 save percentage) in two games against Boston last season.
Johnson also comes into the game on a hot streak of his own, having allowed just three goals on 105 shots for a .971 save percentage in his last three starts prior to Buffalo's six-day layoff for the holidays. In 13 games since the beginning of November, he's posted a .942 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average.
Now, the challenge becomes maintaining his momentum after the extended break.
"It takes a little bit to get back into it," Johnson admitted. "That's why we have this pregame skate. It is what it is so you take the rest and take it for what it is and just get ready for tonight."
Johnson will face a Bruins team that sits in second place in the Atlantic Division and 10 points ahead of the Sabres. A 2-0 loss to St. Louis on Dec. 22 snapped a six-game point streak and was only Boston's second game without earning point since Nov. 19, having gone 11-2-3 in that stretch.
The Bruins' recent play, Johnson said, is reminiscent of the time he spent there.
"The thing for me that I always remember is when the team was playing well they won games and even when the team wasn't playing well, they still found a way to win hockey games," he said. "They're always in hockey games and I think that comes with experience."
Bylsma said that the rest of the Sabres' lineup remains a game time decision, with the question remaining as to whether or not forward Marcus Foligno will return from his upper-body injury and who will sit if he does.
The Sabres coach said that Foligno is still feeling the injury a bit, but thinks that he "could go." Foligno has missed the last three games.
Here's how the lines stacked up on Saturday morning:
88 Jamie McGinn – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 63 Tyler Ennis
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers/26 Matt Moulson – 17 David Legwand – 82 Marcus Foligno
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
25 Carlo Colaiacovo
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark