TORONTO - Sitting at his stall in the visiting room at Air Canada Centre, Jack Eichel saw no reason to focus on negatives. Not after the Sabres had come away with a 3-1 win over division rival Toronto - making up vital ground in the standings in the process - and doing it on the road no less.
Too often this season Buffalo has had to lament coming up short in these types of games, missing opportunities to gain ground on teams in a tight Eastern Conference. On this night, they quickly answered the bell, scoring all three of their goals in the first period. Eichel earned an assist on each one, while Evander Kane scored twice to continue his pace as one of the League's hottest scorers (more on that later).
Did they back off a little bit too much over the next 40 minutes? Maybe, Eichel said, but the fact that the Sabres battled out a win was what resonated most with the young forward.
"We did enough to get the win," Eichel said. "Two points in a divisional rivalry game in Toronto on a Saturday night, there's not much better than that. We needed this one and we got it."
Each game carries more weight as more days are crossed off the calendar, and the Sabres knew the stakes when they entered the night trailing the Maple Leafs by seven points in the standings. A win in regulation would cut the deficit to five; a loss would mean they trail by nine.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said the plan was to start hot out of the gate and establish their forecheck early. That was accomplished by the line of Justin Bailey, Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo, who spent the majority of their first two shifts in the offensive zone.
It was after that line's second shift that the line of Eichel, Kane and Sam Reinhart took the ice for an offensive-zone faceoff that would turn into Kane's first goal just 4:13 into the contest. Eichel won the draw against Auston Matthews, whom he'd be matched up with throughout the night. The puck went to Reinhart, who quickly fed Kane for a one-time goal from the top of the right circle.
Video: BUF@TOR: Kane goes top shelf to open the scoring
Eichel's line stayed on the ice after the goal, and Eichel quickly used his speed to draw a hooking penalty against Jake Gardiner to give Buffalo its first power play. With the man advantage, Eichel sprung Okposo and Reinhart free for a 2-on-1 with the former feeding the latter for the team's second goal.
Video: BUF@TOR: Reinhart finishes nice passing play for PPG
The Sabres had also gotten out to a first-period lead in ther last game at Air Canada Centre, having gone up 2-0 in that January meeting only to lose 4-3. They placed an emphasis on getting a third goal, this time around which they were able to accomplish when Kane one-timed a feed from Eichel from the left circle with 1:58 left to play in the period.
Video: BUF@TOR: Kane scores again in the 1st period
"I thought the third one was one I really like," Bylsma said of Kane's goal. "It's not an area he gets in and sits in and is a recipient of a pass [in] too often. That's a sign of him kind of [adding] another level to his game there. Not just his speed, shooting the puck down the wing but finding that soft spot and Jack makes a good play and he makes no mistake with it."
Toronto outshot Buffalo 31-13 the rest of the way, but the Sabres' defensemen did well to clear lanes for Robin Lehner and he did the rest, stopping 43 of the 44 shots he faced. Mitch Marner scored Toronto's only goal on the power play with 4:03 remaining in the second period, deking to draw Lehner out and then wrapping behind the net to score.
"I thought we kept our composure though, helped each other out," Lehner said. "They got a lucky one, still we didn't panic I didn't think. We just battled one out I think."
It became more of a literal battle as the game wore on and became increasingly physical between two teams that had played twice already and will play twice more before the season ends. Nazem Kadri was the focus of much of the Sabres' ire after he dove into Lehner on a rush in the third period.
"It what it is," Lehner said. "Unfortunately it's part of the game. It's just dangerous, you know. It's dangerous when you do that … I lost a year of my career because of something like that, you've got to have a little respect for your opponents but it is what it is."
Perhaps this was another step forward in the rivalry between two young teams on the rise who happen to play less than two hours apart. On the outside, comparisons have been made all season between the Sabres and Maple Leafs, but Reinhart assured the media afterward that those comparisons weren't what motivated Buffalo's hot start on Saturday.
"We're pissed off were still five points behind," he said. "We're going into this game seven points behind, it's either nine or five so that's all the motivation we needed. We're still right there, we've still got to improve and get better and tighten that gap but it starts tonight and we have another chance at it tomorrow."
Kane keeps scoring
It's hard to believe Kane didn't score his first goal of the season until Dec. 3, an otherwise forgettable 2-1 loss at home to Boston. Prior to that game, he'd missed nearly a full month with cracked ribs and went without a goal in 11 games upon his return, still dealing with the effects of the injury.
Since that goal against Boston, only three other players in the League have scored more goals than Kane, and nobody has scored more at even strength. Kane's 18 goals lead the Sabres despite him having played 10 less games than their second-leading goal scorer, Okposo.
Meanwhile, Kane joked afterward that he might have the most two-goal games in the League among players who haven't scored a hat trick. He had as good as chance as any on Saturday, as the Maple Leafs pulled goalie Frederick Andersen with 3:45 remaining, but missed the few shots he had.
We'll leave this tweet from Ian Ott of the Sabres public relations department here:
A first for Jack
Another stat that's hard to believe: Saturday's game was the first three-assist performance for Eichel in his NHL career. It was also his third time scoring multiple points in his last five games, and his team-leading 10th multi-point game of the season.
These are all good things for the Sabres. With the win, they improved to 19-3-0 in Eichel's career when he scores at least two points and 10-0-0 in such games this season, according to Sabres PR.
The Sabres will head home to play the second of back-to-back games when they host the Vancouver Canucks at KeyBank Center on Sunday night. It will be the second and final meeting between the two teams this season, with Vancouver having won the game 2-1 on Oct. 20.
Coverage on Sunday begins at 7 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Canucks at 7:30.