Jack Eichel was asked earlier in the week about the mounting expectations piled on the Buffalo Sabres following his return to the lineup after a 21-game absence. Eichel had scored a goal and an assist in his season debut in Ottawa, and several Sabres admitted they were a more confident and dynamic team with their young forward back on the ice.
Eichel didn't shy away from that question; rather, he said that the people of Buffalo should have high expectations. He backed that statment up in typical Eichel fashion in his home debut on Thursday night: He scored both the game-tying and the game-winning goals in the third period of Buffalo's 4-3 win over the New York Rangers.
"It was great to be back here," Eichel said. "This is one I was definitely looking forward to so it was great to be able to win and get a little come-from-behind victory in the third period. Being able to contribute, it makes it a whole lot sweeter."
The win marks the second in a row for Buffalo with Eichel in the lineup. The Sabres have scored nine goals combined in those victories, a feat they haven't accomplished in any two-game span since their second and third games of the season.
The Sabres entered the third period trailing 3-2 after defenseman Marc Staal scored on the rush for the Rangers midway through the second period. Brian Gionta had scored to tie the game for the Sabres not even two minutes prior, and they had been controlling the play up until Staal's goal. They headed into the second intermission feeling like they deserved better than a one-goal deficit, but they were confident nonetheless.
"We knew that we got one of our best offensive threats back," Sabres forward Marcus Foligno said, referring to Eichel. "It was either him or it was someone else that was going to get it in. It just ended up being him twice, and we'll take it."
The Sabres pushed throughout the third period, and they had already squandered one power-play opportunity when Eichel drew a holding call against the boards with 7:39 remaining. Eichel felt like the Rangers' penalty kill had forced them to play too tight on their first go-around, so this time he told teammate Kyle Okposo to try and move the puck outside and work it to the middle.
That's what they did, as Okposo carried the puck into the offensive zone along the right-wing boards and fed Eichel as he skated into the near-side faceoff circle. Eichel snapped a quick shot past goalie Henrik Lundqvist for his second goal of the season.
Video: NYR@BUF: Eichel buries a nifty PPG from the circle
Eichel's second goal was slightly more unorthodox. He caught a crossing pass from Sam Reinhart to the left of the net and attempted to pass the puck to Evander Kane in the slot. Instead, the puck deflected into the net off of Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello.
Video: NYR@BUF: Eichel puts Sabres ahead with slick moves
Simply discussing Eichel's goals doesn't do his game justice. When the Sabres entered the third without a power play, it was Eichel that drew both of the penalties that earned them the extra man. Even after he scored twice to gain the lead, Eichel was diving into the boards in an attempt to clear the puck from the defensive zone - and that was seconds after he had been hit hard into the boards on the other end.
"I saw it a number of times," Bylsma said. "In the first period, defensively, he was up against [center Derek] Stepan I believe in the corner and I was - not surprised - I guess I was impressed by his battle level and his willingness to play defense, play hard defense. I think that's something that he worked hard on his game to be better at and it showed there."
Two games and two victories in, Eichel isn't satisfied yet. He's talked throughout the week about KeyBank Center a difficult place to play by earning the fans participation, and he got a glimpse of that when the energy in the building peaked following his goals in the third period.
"It's nice but I think it's something where you just want to stay consistent and keep doing this night in and night out," Eichel said. "You know you're not going to score every night. If you're able to find a way to contribute to the team and help us win games and get two points, I think that's my biggest goal.
"… It's a big game Saturday for us with Boston and it's another chance at home to prove to our fans what kind of team we are."
Another response from Foligno
Foligno has had a knack for coming up big in the minutes after the Sabres have allowed goals this season, and he did it again on Thursday. Rick Nash had just scored to give New York a 2-1 lead when Foligno rushed off the bench, skated directly to the puck behind the net and fed Gionta for his goal in the second period.
Video: NYR@BUF: Gionta scores on Foligno's nifty dish
The assist marked the 100th point in Foligno's career.
"When he's at his best he's moving, he's that big body, you can't get him off the puck, heavy on the forecheck, things like that," Gionta said of Foligno. "He took one off the chin and stayed with it and was able to get it our front so it was a great play by him on the goal."
The line of Foligno, Gionta and Larsson has been one of Buffalo's most consistent this season, but Gionta said they felt like they had something more to give in the game against Ottawa on Tuesday. They responded with a strong effort against New York, consistently forechecking to keep the puck in the offensive zone and combining for five shots on goal.
"We talked about it," Foligno said. "That's what we do a good job of, me, Larsson, Gio. After every game, after every shift, we talk a lot on the bench … We knew in Ottawa it wasn't good enough. I mean our effort's there, but we talked about holding onto pucks more, being more dangerous down low and around their net."
Larsson scored from deep
Apparently the Sabres have added long-range goals to their repertoire on offense. Ryan O'Reilly already scored once from center ice earlier this season, and on Thursday Johan Larsson tipped Jake McCabe's center-ice shot at the blue line and the puck dribbled in past Lundqvist.
Video: NYR@BUF: Larsson nets long deflection 18 seconds in
The goal gave the Sabres a lead 18 seconds into the contest.
The Sabres continue conclude their current homestand with a matinee against the Boston Bruins on Saturday. It will be the second of three games between the two teams this season. The Bruins earned a 4-0 win in the first meeting in Boston on Nov. 7.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 12:30 p.m. with the TOPS Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 1 p.m.