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by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

Jack Eichel said that the Buffalo Sabres had upped their compete level in the final five minutes against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night, playing with a renewed sense of desperation that allowed him to score and cut a two-goal deficit in half.

Unfortunately, that goal also came with only a minute remaining in regulation. The objective when they host Carolina on Friday, then, is to bring that same desperation right from the opening faceoff.

“I think we need to have a good start here. That first goal’s got to be ours tonight,” Eichel said. “If we score one early I think the crowd will be into the game. We’ve played with the lead a few times this year and we’ve been able to do well with it so I think that’s important for us tonight.”

Buffalo will have to do it without their full starting lineup. Forward Tyler Ennis will miss his second-straight game with an upper-body injury while fellow forward Evander Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian are both game-time decisions after being absent from the team’s morning skate.

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that defenseman Mike Weber, who has missed the last eight games after undergoing surgery on his knee, could be ready to play in the event that Bogosian is scratched. Bylsma said that there is no timetable yet for Ennis’ return.

Coverage of the Sabres’ matchup with the Hurricanes begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.

Chad Johnson, who was 12-for-12 on save attempts in 32:02 of ice time in relief of Linus Ullmark on Wednesday, will start in goal for Buffalo.

Now 22 games into the season, only the Hurricanes have produced less first-period goals (8) than the Sabres’ nine. That number matters particularly at First Niagara Center, where the players have acknowledged that the atmosphere in the stands has translated to their energy on the ice.

To find an example, look no further than that 3-2 loss to Nashville on Wednesday. When Marcus Foligno dived toward a loose puck and up-ended Predators goalie Carter Hutton into a full-on front flip, the crowd burst into excitement. The players noticed.

“It’s not a play you see often on Foligno’s hit on that goalie,” forward Nicolas Deslauriers said. “Just hearing the building get loud, it gave us a little bit more legs there and we just need to bring that and just do it right off the bat. Bring it the first five minutes and get the fans involved and we sure have the best fans here.”

Carolina defenseman Noah Hanifin was taken with the No. 5 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, three selections after Eichel was chosen by the Sabres. On Wednesday, the rookies will meet for the first time in the NHL – but that’s not to say they don’t have some familiarity.

“We’ve been playing against each other for a while now,” Eichel said. “It’s special that two young guys, two rookies are facing each other here and both from pretty similar backgrounds, pretty similar paths and now playing against each other in the NHL.”

How similar are those backgrounds?

Hanifin grew up in Norwood, Massachusetts, 38.5 miles from Eichel’s hometown of North Chelmsford. Both players left Boston to play in the USA Hockey National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, won a U-18 World Junior Championship for Team USA in 2014 and then returned home to play a year in the NCAA at rival schools – Eichel at Boston University and Hanifin at Boston College.

Over the years, they’ve developed quite the friendship. They spent the past summer training together in preparation for the next step in their parallel paths: playing hockey at the highest level. While they’ll take that step as opponents, they’ve remained a source of support for one another throughout the transition.

“I talked to him a few weeks ago, just checking in on him and stuff,” Hanifin said. “It’s definitely important. It’s just nice know there’s other guys that are going through what you’re going through and obviously I’m really good friends with Jack so if I ever need to reach out to him or anything I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. I’m sure the same for him.”

“I think both of us have trained our whole lives for this opportunity, to be in this situation,” Eichel said. “I’m sure he’s been doing really well, I’ve been keeping tabs on him a little bit and I’m sure he’s enjoying it. This is what we’ve both worked for our whole lives, it’s just great to see him enjoying himself and doing so well.”

As far as their head-to-head matchups go, BU and BC split the contests in which both players played last season. But Eichel was quick to remind everyone that the Terriers won the Beanpot, an annual tournament between four of Boston’s Division-I hockey programs, and went further into the NCAA tournament last season.

“I think we had a good few battles last year in college but I mean, obviously BU got the better of BC last year,” he said.

While it remains to be seen how the lines will look should Kane and Bogosian play against Carolina, this is how the Sabres ran their line rushes at the morning skate on Friday:

22 Johan Larsson – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
26 Matt Moulson – 15 Jack Eichel – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 82 Marcus Foligno
59 Tim Schaller – 17 David Legwand – 88 Jamie McGinn

4 Josh Gorges/29 Jake McCabe – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 46 Cody Franson
6 Mike Weber

31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark

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