has always had a propensity to make highly-skilled plays. Jack Eichel
knew it even before he was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres.
Ennis put that skill on display Saturday night at Canadian Tire Centre, where he scored three goals and an assist to lead the Sabres to a 6-4 win over the Ottawa Senators, their third victory of the preseason.
“I knew he was super-skilled, I had seen a lot of his highlights and watched him play before,” Eichel said. “He’s pretty silky and to be a player of his size and do the things he does at this level, it’s pretty remarkable. He’s probably one of the most skilled guys in the NHL.”
Playing with Ennis and Evander Kane for the first time, Eichel was pretty “silky” in his own right. The second-overall pick in June assisted on each of Ennis’ first two goals, played brilliantly off the puck according to his coach and made a few other highlight-reel plays that won’t show on the score sheet.
When the Sabres were down 2-0 in the first period, Eichel and Ennis worked to get them on the board.
Eichel stole the puck behind the net and fed it to Ennis, who spun around the post and caught Senators goaltender Craig Anderson off guard with a backhand shot from behind the goal line.
Ennis made another play less than five minutes later when he stole the puck from Clarke MacArthur in front of the net. Falling to the ground, he fed a charging Kane, who flung a backhand shot to Anderson’s stick side for his third goal in two preseason games.
“We’re down 2-0 and it’s his work – just hounding the puck, on the forecheck and just stripping the guy and getting Kane the goal there. It’s his work that gets us back into this game,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of Ennis. “That’s the impressive thing about his game.”
The show was far from over.
In the second period, the duo of Eichel and Ennis struck again. Rushing on a 2-on-1 break, Eichel showed his patience in beating an Ottawa defender with a perfect pass across the net. The pass found Ennis, who capitalized again to give Buffalo a 4-2 lead.
“I like to look at the pass first, get the goalie moving, and I was able to slide it by,” Eichel said of the play.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to pass that to me,” Ennis said. “I was just getting ready because I knew it was coming my way.”
Ennis was actually trying to pass the puck to Eichel when he scored his third goal. He fumbled the pass attempt and an Anderson poke check sent it into the air, from where Ennis batted it into the net as he glided past the goal line. The goal put the Sabres up 5-3 and, although Ottawa scored again shortly thereafter to make it close, it gave them a lead they would never relinquish.
For Eichel, the transition to playing between Ennis and Kane was easy.
“You just want to play fast, I think that’s the most important thing,” Eichel said. “That’s the way they play and that’s my identity so I think as a line we wanted to play fast and I think we did that.”
Eichel created other opportunities that didn’t result in points, too. He won a faceoff in the offensive zone early in the second period and took the puck to the net himself but was stopped by Anderson.
He put his skating ability on display later in that period when he sped his way around the net for a wrap-around attempt while the Sabres were shorthanded.
All that, and his off-puck play was equally impressive to Bylsma.
“Talk about his speed with the puck, but it’s his speed away from the puck that’s allowed him to play hard, play well, track back and I thought he was very good in that area of the game as well,” the coach said.
A GOOD BOUNCE
The Sabres’ top line wasn’t the only one to score in the victory. Zemgus Girgensons, playing at center for the first time this preseason, also scored in the second period to give Buffalo a 3-2 lead.
As if the boards were dressed in blue and gold, a Jake McCabe shot took a perfect bounce off the wall directly onto the stick of Girgensons, who was positioned in front of the net for the score.
The play gave Girgensons and McCabe each their second point of the preseason. McCabe also tallied an assist in Friday night’s win in Toronto.
In the dwindling moments of the game, the Sabres held a one-goal lead and found themselves on the wrong side of a 6-on-4 after Ottawa pulled its goalie on the power play.
They didn’t break, however. In fact, Johan Larsson netted the empty-netter to give the Sabres their fourth shorthanded goal of the preseason. They’ve scored one in each of their preseason games.
“Four in a row, that’s all I have to say,” Bylsma said.
The play also displayed Larsson’s importance. After impressing Bylsma throughout camp, the coach said that the forward’s presence on the ice in that situation was no coincidence.
“I thought, in that late situation I had both Larsson and Girgensons to put on the ice as guys who could take the draw,” he said. “I’m not sure we have any other guys on our team to do it.
“And [Larsson] did a great job there at the end with the draw, and he made a great play with his stick, broke up a shot from the point and ends up with Girgensons giving him the empty-netter which is good to see.”
The Sabres return to First Niagara Center to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. The game can be heard live on WGR 550 with Brian Duff and Rob Ray on the call.