|(Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn)
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Call it his pro debut, call it a preseason game, call it what you will: if Monday’s game in Minnesota was Jack Eichel’s first NHL test, he earned at least a passing grade.
In his first taste of League action, all the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft did was deliver the game-tying assist and the game-winning goal to lead the Sabres to a 3-2 win over the Wild at Xcel Energy Enter.
Buffalo was caught shorthanded in a third-period tie when Eichel forced a turnover near center ice and used his speed to rush towards the net on a breakaway. He promptly slipped the puck between the legs of Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper to give the Sabres a lead they would never relinquish.
“I hadn’t been on the kill but he put me out for the draw, I was on my strong side so I was able to win it,” Eichel said afterward. “You know, good bounce after, it was a nice play from [defenseman Cody Franson] so I got a little break there and it was nice to get the first one.”
“His speed really gets to that puck,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He tried that move in the scrimmage and it didn’t work so when he went to it … Maybe there was better ice at that point of the period, but yeah you saw the speed and acceleration from him and then he puts it away.”
Nicolas Deslauriers also scored for Buffalo in the victory. Mikael Granlund and Jared Spurgeon each contributed a goal for Minnesota against Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson, who made 15 saves. Nathan Lieuwen stopped all three of the shots he faced in relief of Johnson in the third period, including a clutch save while on his back to preserve the lead late.
Buffalo trailed 2-1 in the third period when Eichel tallied his first point. The play was close to what Bylsma envisioned when he placed Eichel on a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson: Girgensons made a play on the wall to get the puck to Eichel, who dashed towards the net and slid a pass across to Moulson, waiting in the blue paint.
To Eichel, that play was a sign of developing chemistry for the line.
In the first period, Eichel dazzled with a smooth spin to evade a defender near the wall while entering the offensive zone, but his subsequent pass missed Matt Moulson as he rushed towards the net.
“I don’t know how I really fell into that move,” he said. “It’s kind of a little move I had worked on this summer … I wish I would’ve shot it, it’s a learning moment for me.”
Eichel’s impressive showing wasn’t just limited to his offensive playmaking. Minnesota played their top talent on Monday, and Eichel looked comfortable going against seasoned veterans all night long. Off the puck, Bylsma said, the 18-year-old was equally impressive.
“Out of the 17 games I’ve seen him play, it was probably the best he’s ever played without the puck,” Bylsma said. “He tracked back extremely hard, created some turnovers, was hard in the D-zone. Like I said, that was the best game I’ve seen him play without the puck.”
So, the performance must’ve served as quite the confidence booster for Eichel, right?
“It should be a pretty big confidence booster for our whole team,” he said. “They’ve got a pretty good lineup tonight and a great goaltender, a lot of good players on that team so for us to come in here and get a win like that for the first of the year, it’s a good start.”
FINDING THEIR LEGS
After three days of intense practice and having played two intra-squad scrimmages each, Bylsma said before the game Monday that he didn’t expect his players to be completely fresh come game time. That turned out to be true, as Buffalo got off to a slow start and got outshot 11-5 in the first period.
“I think we all got better,” he said. “We killed a couple of big penalties, got our legs under us, obviously our goalies played great.”
For Johnson, Monday’s start in net was significant in that it was his first real game action since being sidelined with a lower-body injury shortly after being dealt to the Sabres last season. He responded with a solid night between the pipes, keeping Buffalo in the game early despite Minnesota’s offensive dominance.
“I felt good. I was just trying to get out there and have the right mindset,” Johnson said. “I think early on they came with a lot of speed, I traditionally they’re a pretty good starting team so It was nice getting the first one out of the way and just kind of build off that.”
LARSSON RELIED UPON
After spending the first weekend of Training Camp playing between William Carrier and Nicholas Baptiste, Johan Larsson started Monday’s game centering Deslauriers and Marcus Foligno.
The line really came together late in the first to score Buffalo’s first goal.
As the opening period dwindled to a close, Larsson carried the puck up the ice to lead a beautifully set offensive rush. Larsson dished the puck to Foligno, who fired a shot towards the net. Larsson, still closing on the net, redirected the shot on goal and Deslauriers capitalized on the rebound attempt.
In the end, Larsson led all forwards with 17:53 of ice time.
“He played an awful lot, took 19 draws for us in a lot of key situations and I thought we depended on him a lot,” Bylsma said of Larsson. “Penalty kill, those faceoffs and then in-between those guys, I thought he did a good job.”
Buffalo returns to practice Tuesday with two sessions at First Niagara Center starting at 9:30 a.m. Monday’s game group will have the day off. All on-ice sessions are open to the public.
They’ll host the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday for their second of seven preseason games. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m.