Rookies Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart connected in impressive fashion to tie the game for the Buffalo Sabres and the two very nearly gave Buffalo the victory in a shootout Saturday afternoon. Eichel, unsuccessful on the first three attempts of his young career, scored to kick off the shootout and Reinhart had the chance to give the Sabres a 2-1 edge on their third attempt.
Reinhart did everything right on the first shootout attempt of his career, faking left with his stick before pulling it to the right, forcing Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk to leave the five-hole open as he scattered across the net. Reinhart hit the hole, too, sliding the puck between Dubnyk's pads.
But even though he beat the goaltender, the puck rang off the post and out.
A couple of missed shots later, former Sabre Jason Pominville was celebrating the game-winner of a 3-2 victory for the Wild at First Niagara Center.
"Once it went by him, I was just kind of hoping," Reinhart said of his attempt. "He kind of stayed with me throughout the whole move and I was able to sneak it by. Unfortunately, it hit the post, but he played it pretty well."
The Sabres entered the third period with a 2-1 lead on the strength of goals from Eichel and Johan Larsson. Mikko Koivu tied the game with a power-play goal after Josh Gorges was caught for tripping with 6:15 remaining. Koivu one-timed a pass from the right circle after a broken play.
The goal gave Minnesota a power-play score in 12-straight road games.
"We just got overly-aggressive on a play to the back of the net and they turned off it and made a play through the seam right in front," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's disappointing. At that point we're five-and-a-half to go, six minutes to go in the game and a big kill probably wins us the game."
Buffalo had its chances in the 3-on-3 overtime period. Eichel was open for a breakaway attempt, but defenseman Mark Pysyk didn’t see him in time to deliver a pass. Evander Kane actually did have a breakaway shortly after, but he shot it into Dubnyk.
"I thought we did a lot of good things as a team so it's a tough one to swallow," Eichel said. "You give up a power-play goal at the end of the game and then you have a couple of opportunities to win and we can't, so it's frustrating."
Kane was particularly hard on himself after the loss. In addition to his missed shot on the breakaway, he was unable to connect on a 2-on-1 feed from Eichel when the Sabres trailed 1-0 in the first and then later couldn't convert on his shootout attempt.
"I take responsibility for us not winning that game," Kane said. "I'm counted on to produce and score when I get those big opportunities and I definitely didn’t do that tonight, so there's really no excuse for that."
Robin Lehner made 28 saves on 30 shots in net for Buffalo. Dubnyk was 30-for-32 on save opportunities, picking up his 25th win of the season for the Wild.
After Eichel finally broke the Sabres' power-play drought with a goal on their final attempt against Calgary on Thursday, they had a chance to pick up right where they left off when Nino Niederreiter received a double minor for high-sticking Jake McCabe in the second period on Saturday.
The penalty proved to be a turning point in the game for the Sabres, who trailed 1-0 after David Jones scored for Minnesota 2:16 into the first period. Larsson, a new addition to the power play for Saturday's game, scored on a rebound 52 seconds into the four-minute penalty to tie the game. Eichel gave the Sabres the lead with a power-play goal of his own 1:23 later.
Reinhart fed Eichel the on the go-ahead goal, catching a pass near the net and zipping the puck across to Eichel in the right-wing circle. Eichel beat Dubnyk with a sharp wrister to the near side.
"He didn’t look at me if you watch it," Eichel said. "He's looking away from the net and it's a great no-look pass by him."
"On plays like that, when you know who's on the ice, you know they're going to put themselves in a position where the puck kind of has to go and where it should go," Reinhart explained. "You saw before the play developed that he was already standing there waiting for it."
It was the kind of play that might not have happened earlier in the season. Eichel and Reinhart have played together on the power-play all season and have been linemates in recent games, but Reinhart said that developing chemistry is something that took them time.
"I don’t think we were, to be honest, very good with each other at the start of the year but I think we've been able to find chemistry as of late – especially to get that much more comfortable with each other both 5-on-5 and on the power play," Reinhart said. "Obviously he's an easy guy to play with and hopefully we can keep that going."
JACK & SAM CATCH VANEK & POMINVILLE
With Pominville and Thomas Vanek in the house, Eichel and Reinhart became the first pair of Sabres rookies to tally 30 points each in the same season since the two Wild forwards did it for Buffalo during the 2005-06 campaign.
Eichel has 19 goals and 25 assists for 44 points this season, moving him past Detroit's Dylan Larkin for second among NHL rookies. Reinhart's assist gave him 30 points exactly with 18 goals and 12 assists.
With his goal on Saturday, Larsson has scored in back-to-back games for only the second time in his career and now has scored three times in his last five contests. Four of his five goals this season have come since Feb. 3, providing an added offensive element from a player who's been counted on primarily as a defensive presence.
The Sabres will head to Toronto for the first of three games this month against the rival Maple Leafs on Monday night at Air Canada Centre. The two teams last met way back on Oct. 21, when the Sabres took a 2-1 contest in a shootout.
Coverage on Monday begins at 7 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550 with faceoff slated for 7:30 p.m.