had barely rested after a long overtime shift Monday night when coach Randy Cunneyworth
came to the young Sabre to ask him if he had anything left in the tank.
“We were on the bench after kind of a long shift in our own zone,” Eichel said. “I figured I could go out there and see what I can do.”
What could Eichel do?
A burst of speed past Bruins forward Anton Blidh, with whom he had nearly come to blows with in the first period, a pinpoint shot past Boston goaltender Zane McIntyre with 37 seconds remaining, and just enough energy left over to celebrate the Sabres’ 3-2, overtime victory in the finale of the inaugural Prospects Challenge, presented by Tops, Post Foods and Honey Bunches of Oats.
“The puck went in the corner, it was kind of a weird play, but I thought the guy was gonna get it and I don’t know if he took a bad angle but it was almost like we were in a foot race,” Eichel said afterward. “I was able to just push it behind him and kind of break away a little bit and then able to get a shot away.”
Perhaps most impressively, Eichel’s game-winning goal – his first in game competition as a member of the Buffalo Sabres – may not have even been his most dazzling moment of the game.
Buffalo found itself trailing 2-1 late in the third period when the Sabres entered their fourth power play of the night. As they had done throughout the third period with the regular lines, the Sabres coaching staff shook up their top power play unit to include both Eichel and fellow top prospect Sam Reinhart.
This time, it was Eichel who capitalized – the forward snuck a perfect pass across the ice and in-between three Boston defenders to find defenseman Brycen Martin, who was perfectly positioned to score the game-tying goal.
Even Martin wasn’t sure if the puck would find its way to him.
“Honestly, I had no clue, but he’s an exceptional player and he can make plays like that and I felt pretty good after he did it,” Martin said. “I don’t think I’m gonna forget that pass, it was so perfect.”
“I think it’s the manner in which he does it, I think there’s calm, there’s poise, I think it’s thought out beforehand. I think that’s a pass that might not make it if you don’t elevate it a little bit or find that perfect sweet spot … it’s pure ability,” Cunneyworth said of Eichel.
Prior to Eichel’s showcase, the Sabres had struggled for much of the game to match the tenacity of the Bruins. Boston got out to a 2-0 lead in the first period thanks to goals from Frank Vatrano and Linus Arnesson, a lead that Buffalo cut to one when 2014 draft pick Vaclav Karabacek tipped in a shot from defenseman David Henley in the second.
Buffalo had several opportunities to score in the third period; a late shot by Evan Rodrigues deflected off of the right post and, later, Justin Bailey failed to connect on a pass right at the Bruins’ door step.
Boston goaltender Zane McIntyre stopped 35 of the 38 shots he faced; Buffalo’s C.J. Motte stopped 27-29 and did his part to shut out the Bruins after the opening period.
But on this night, like many of the nights ahead if Buffalo has its way, the game belonged to Eichel.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “You go down 2-0 in the first and to be able to battle back and win 3-2, I think it’s a really good stepping stone for us.”
Buffalo finishes the round-robin showcase with a 2-0 record after defeating New Jersey on Saturday.
‘A NATURAL PAIRING’
Up until the second period of Monday’s game, Eichel and Reinhart had never shared the ice as teammates. They were on opposing sides of the Sabres’ Blue and Gold scrimmage at Development Camp and even on opposing teams in the 3-on-3 Tournament. They had never shared a line, not even in practice.
That changed against the Bruins when, with his team down 2-1, Cunneyworth decided to give Boston a different look.
“I think the poise of Sam and the ability of Eich to finish some of those plays, they complement each other,” Cunneyworth said. “They’re guys that see each other; they see the ice very well, so it’s a natural pairing.”
Eichel and Reinhart not only played together, but they played often during the third period. They began on separate lines in the 3-on-3 overtime, but even then Cunneyworth made sure to get them both on the ice as the extra period expired.
“I think the workload was light at the beginning and that obviously enabled us to kind of shorten the bench a bit and get them out there as often as we could,” Cunneyworth said.
Having both players on the ice for both the game-tying and game-winning goals, the experiment paid off.
SABRES VS. BRUINS: PROSPECTS EDITION
The rivalry between Boston and Buffalo seemed to trickle down to the organizations’ prospects on Monday, as the two teams engaged in the most physical game of the Prospects Challenge.
There were a few near-fights throughout the game until the intensity finally culminated into Sabres defenseman Brady Austin dropping the gloves against Bruins forward Justin Hickman following a third-period faceoff.
Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe also highlighted the game with two punishing hits on Blidh against the boards in the third period, one of which Cunneyworth credited for pointing the momentum in Buffalo’s favor.
“He can do those things, he can step up, he had a big hit at the bench – their guy thinks he’s sneaking by him and he steps into him so his mobility’s good but he’s a guy that competes, and he sets a good example for the younger guys,” Cunneyworth said.
McCabe said following the win that Buffalo made a conscious effort to increase its physicality following a disappointing first period.
“They definitely brought that physical aspect early, and I think that’s what we weren’t very happy with following our first period performance. We kind of were on our heels and easy to play against and they were hard to play against, and that’s what we wanted to be,” McCabe said.
“The third period especially, we were hemming them in their zone, we established a fore check, Brady Austin had a big fight for us, sparked us, and that kind of turned the tables and they couldn’t get out of their zone.”