The Sabres were shorthanded, and the 18-year-old center had the puck at the top of the circle in the defensive zone. Nicolas Deslauriers had just intercepted a pass intended for Toronto forward Connor Brown and immediately found the young forward with a short pass of his own.
Eichel knew he was breaking for the net. Heck, everyone in the building knew that he was breaking for the net. As he broke away, the distance between him and a trailing Brown growing with each stride, he heard the First Niagara Center crowd begin to roar.
“I could hear them start to get going as I was breaking away,” Eichel said. “I was just praying I didn’t miss. “
Eichel didn’t miss, of course. He snapped a quick wrister in front of the net to give the Sabres their fifth shorthanded goal in as many games and opened the floodgates for a 4-0 victory over the Maple Leafs. Buffalo is now 4-1-0 in the preseason.
If Eichel had any doubt in his mind about scoring the goal, his teammates didn’t. Evan Rodrigues, who played with Eichel at Boston University, knew what was going to happen the moment Eichel received the puck.
“As soon as he got the puck, I think I was already standing knowing it was going in,” Rodrigues said. “If not, someone was getting the rebound, but that puck was going in the net.”
Rodrigues also recorded two goals and Matt Moulson netted the other score in the victory for the Sabres. Robin Lehner, playing his first full game of the preseason, made 26 saves in a shutout performance.
But no play stood out more than Eichel’s in the first period. When the Sabres scored shorthanded in back-to-back games early in the preseason, it was already a topic of conversation. When they scored their fourth shorthanded goal on Saturday in Ottawa, coach Dan Bylsma was left speechless.
But five shorthanded goals in five consecutive games? At this point, it can’t be coincidence.
“I have never, ever been a part of a mentality like that. It’d be one thing if we talked about scoring a shorthanded goal or we were looking for opportunities, which, it just hasn’t been the case,” Bylsma said.
With that being said, the players he’s utilizing on the penalty kill certainly have a propensity to score. Two of the shorthanded goals have been scored by Eichel, another by Evander Kane. If a turnover is forced in the defensive zone with either of those players on the ice, as Deslauriers did on Tuesday, good things can happen quickly.
“I think that we’re doing a good job of causing turnovers down low and our [defensemen] are doing a great job of causing turnovers,” Eichel said. “When you do that sometimes you get opportunities the other way.”
A PAIR FOR E-ROD
For as good as Eichel was, Rodrigues also showed off the offensive skill that has impressed Bylsma time and time again throughout camp and dating back into the summer. Both of the goals scored by the undrafted rookie not only displayed his talent with the puck, but also his willingness to go get it.
In the second period, Rodrigues took a shot that Marcus Foligno attempted to redirect in front of the net. When the puck was stopped by Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier, Foligno continued to fight for it and Rodrigues raced in to capitalize. He took the puck from Foligno and wrapped around behind the net, beating Bernier’s leg to the post to put the Sabres up 3-0.
Rodrigues’ hustle earned him another goal in the third period. This time, he passed the puck to Sam Reinhart who put a shot on goal that directed off the pad of Toronto’s backup goalie, James Reimer, up into the air. Reimer missed the puck with his glove and Rodrigues scored on a rebound opportunity.
“It wasn’t so much his skill that got him the two goals as it was his determination,” Bylsma said. “He stuck on pucks and won pucks and gets two opportunities, two goals tonight so it’s been impressive. It’s tough to score in this league and he’s been able to do it.”
For Rodrigues, the game – albeit a special one – was simply another step in proving that he belongs.
“It’s definitely huge for my confidence,” he said. “I’m just coming to the rink every day and trying to make it hard for the coaches to make a decision on me and when I get the chance to play in a regular-season game for Buffalo I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
LEHNER STOPS ’EM ALL
Going into Tuesday night’s game, Lehner said that he was still looking to get more comfortable with his reads after missing five months leading up to camp do to a concussion. His shutout performance, he said, was a step in the right direction.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good,” he said. “The other games too I felt pretty good; it’s been a few details I’ve been working on, just getting into the game reads and stuff I felt more calm today and we played pretty good the first two periods. As expected, they came at us in the third and it felt good.”
Lehner made two of his best saves in the third period, one being a glove save on a Toronto breakaway and another in which he dove to knock the puck off a Leafs player’s stick.
“If I know I can get it I usually do that,” he said. “I’d rather do that then they have a breakaway so as long I don’t miss it I’m happy.”
RETURN OF RISTO
After missing all of Training Camp up until Monday with an upper-body injury, Rasmus Ristolainen led all skaters with 23:32 minutes of ice time Tuesday night.
His performance was enough to catch the attention of his head coach.
“Clearly an NHL player,” Bylsma said. “He made some mistakes and you could see there were some times where [things] happened a little bit quick for him but just clearly an NHL player back there, which is big for us. We need him back there and it was evident tonight.”
Ristolainen’s presence is especially important right now as the Sabres’ defensive depth got even thinner on Tuesday when Brendan Guhle left the game following a hard hit by Dion Phaneuf. Although Bylsma labeled Guhle’s absence as “precautionary,” he didn’t rule out having to find another defenseman for Thursday’s game in Minnesota.
As of Monday, Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges were both said to be week-to-week and Jake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel were day-to-day with various injuries.
Buffalo will take the ice Wednesday for practice and head out for their sixth of seven preseason games Thursday morning to play in Minnesota that night. Faceoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. from Xcel Energy Center. The game can be heard live on WGR 550 with Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray on the call.
Friday’s preseason finale against Columbus will be carried live on MSG-B with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m.