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Eichel, Larsson lead way in victory over Blues

Sabres have earned points in 8 of last 10 games

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Jack Eichel lined up for a defensive-zone faceoff with a minute remaining against the reigning Stanley Cup champions on Tuesday. The Sabres were seeking to protect a one-goal lead, and Eichel was tasked with winning a draw against former teammate Ryan O'Reilly. 

The puck dropped and bounced between O'Reilly's legs. Johan Larsson boxed out his man and pounced on it, poking it back to defenseman Henri Jokiharju. Larsson was tossing the puck toward an empty net a few seconds later, which Zemgus Girgensons buried off the post. 

It was a crucial moment in what ended as a 5-2 win for the Sabres, and Eichel and Larsson - two players who extended personal point streaks - were fitting participants. 

"He's the best in the league for a reason," Eichel said, referring to O'Reilly's faceoff prowess. "I'm just trying to bear down, not lose it clean. I had some really good help by wingers on that first one. It was a great play by Larry to push it back. He drives to the dot and it's a fifty-fifty puck. It's a huge play by him."

Video: Condensed Game: Blues @ Sabres

Eichel added a second empty-net goal for his second of the night and 20th of the season, extending his career-best point streak to 14 games (more on that later). Larsson also had a goal and an assist, giving him nine points in his last seven outings and his first three-game point streak since 2016. 

But perhaps even more so than any offensive contributions, the win was a testament to the Sabres' willingness to trust their game plan against premier competition. They surrendered leads of 1-0 and 2-1 and responded each time, then protected a 3-2 lead for the last 14:14 of the contest. 

The Sabres have now earned points in eight of their last 10 games, including back-to-back wins over division leaders from the Western Conference in Edmonton and St. Louis. 

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said the team's perseverance is a testament to players' willingness to buy into the small picture he's promoted all season: Focus on the opponent at hand, improve each day, and trust the results will come. Simple concepts, but difficult to put into practice.

"To get there on a daily basis in this league is really difficult," Krueger said. "You could just feel the guys in that space. They believe in what we're all doing here together and they're working really hard for it. 

"Coming back from the west, three [games] in four [days], and I thought we had more energy than they did down the stretch and that was a sign of the work these guys are doing to prepare for these kinds of challenges. The mind is only strong if the body is still performing. That combination has to happen, and it certainly did tonight."

Video: POSTGAME: Krueger

As the points and victories come, so should trust in the game plan. Krueger spoke Tuesday morning about the different challenges Edmonton and St. Louis pose. Edmonton looks to win with skill; St. Louis grinds opponents down with discipline and physicality. 

That the Sabres saw their style of play succeed against both, Krueger said, should be a confidence builder. 

"It's finally starting to bear fruit, all the hard work that we're putting into every day," said Linus Ullmark, who made 28 saves. "Guys are sticking with it even though we maybe have some rough stretches some time. If we just stick with what we're good at, we're going to come victorious in the end. We might not win every night, but we'll have a good chance at winning."

"I think we're starting to form an identity I think with the confidence Ralph's instilling in us and the way he wants us to play," Eichel added. "It's evident the way we can play every night to give ourselves a chance to win. We take care of the puck. We do the little things."

That identity only amplified during crunch time. 

"I even thought there was another gear there in the guys in the last five minutes," Krueger said. "Just that desire to win now, the love for trying to get that feeling in the room is big. This is just another little step forward, but it is one that's going to strengthen us, for sure, for the challenges ahead."


Jack scores 20 

Eichel's empty-netter made him just the third player to reach the 20-goal mark this season, joining David Pastrnak (25) and Alex Ovechkin (21). He leads the NHL with 12 goals and 25 points since his 14-game point streak began on Nov. 16. 

It's taken just 32 games for Eichel to hit 20 goals, by far the fastest pace of his career. After an offseason of focusing on filling the net more often, he's on pace for 52 goals midway through December. 

Eichel's third-period goal may have been evidence of his evolution. He stood with the puck behind the St. Louis net for five seconds as all five Blues defenders scrambled to take away passing options. Instead, he stepped out to the front of the net unguarded and buried a wrist shot of his own.

Video: STL@BUF: Eichel outwaits Allen to extend point streak

"Most teams probably scout like I'm going to pass there," he said afterward. "I think with the way I had the puck prepared, it kind of made everyone seem like I was going to pass it somewhere, so they were trying to take my options away."


Larsson keeps producing 

Larsson has been a dependable presence all season long for the Sabres. He's often among the first players over the boards on the penalty kill, he's consistently relied upon in late-game situations, and his work in the offensive zone tires opponents so other lines can reap the rewards. 

Lately, Larsson has added his own offensive touch to the mix. After being robbed by Blues goalie Jake Allen in the first period, he buried an odd carom off the end boards to put the Sabres ahead, 2-1, with 8.6 seconds remaining in the second. 

Video: STL@BUF: Larsson scores on big bounce

"For him and that line to fire the way it does, they can play against anybody in the league and we feel comfortable about that but now adding scoring is of course a nice bonus," Krueger said. 

"Larsson should take a lot of confidence out of that. He can definitely be an offensive player in this league too. I think we've got an improving Johan Larsson that we're watching right now."


Up next

The Sabres host the Nashville Predators on Thursday. It will be Aud Night at KeyBank Center, with all fans in attendance receiving a t-shirt based colored after the seating pattern at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. 

Sixteen alumni from the 1980s are scheduled to be in attendance. Find the full list along with more details here

Can't make it downtown? Coverage on MSG begins at 6:30 p.m., or you can listen to the game on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7. 

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