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Eichel excels on both ends of the ice in Sabres' win over Leafs

Captain tallies 3 points in victory

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Jack Eichel stepped over the boards with 1:36 remaining, one of five Sabres tasked with protecting a one-goal lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs inside KeyBank Center on Friday. Toronto had just called a timeout, prepping for a 6-on-5 attack with goalie Michael Hutchinson pulled. 

Sixty-nine hectic seconds later, Eichel was still on the ice, watching his shot travel out of the Buffalo zone and into the empty Toronto net at the other end of the ice. He lifted his stick into the air as his teammates surrounded him, exhausted and victorious. 

The goal capped a three-point night for the captain in Buffalo's back-and-forth, 6-4 win over the Maple Leafs. But for all his offensive contributions, it was Eichel's late defensive presence that stuck out in coach Ralph Krueger's memory afterward.

"I was most excited about his last couple of minutes, how he came to play without the puck, how hard he defended when they pulled the goalie out," Krueger said. "He did put one in the empty net, but it was the work he did before that I think that shows Jack is maturing right in front of our eyes. 

"Every day is fun coaching Jack Eichel."

Video: Eichel notches three points in win vs. Maple Leafs

The victory was far from a one-man show. Jeff Skinner, Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson and Jimmy Vesey all added goals as the Sabres erased a 2-0 deficit in the second period and then fended off an aggressive Maple Leafs comeback attempt in the third. Linus Ullmark made 25 saves. 

Yet it was Eichel who led the way, beginning when he traveled from end to end on a backcheck and lunged to break up a would-be breakaway for John Tavares in the first period. 

Tavares did eventually score a pair of goals, the latter of which put the Maple Leafs ahead 2-0 early in the second. Even then, the Sabres felt comfortable with the way they had been playing. Skinner cut the deficit in half with his 10th goal of the season, scored at the 5:45 mark of the period.

Eichel took a penalty for slashing less than two minutes later. He waited while the penalty kill did its job - it held the Maple Leafs power play without a goal on four tries - then left the box, picked the puck up at the defensive blue line, gained a head of steam as he carried it through the neutral zone and buried a hard wrist shot on a 2-on-1 rush with Marcus Johansson.

Video: TOR@BUF: Eichel pots wrist shot on odd-man rush

In that moment, Johansson felt momentum swing in Buffalo's direction.

"It felt like we played good," he said. "They had some chances, but it felt like we played pretty good. Once we got the 2-2 goal, I felt like we just kind of kept taking over a little bit."

Mittelstadt deflected a shot from Marco Scandella to put the Sabres ahead less than three minutes later. Eichel struck again with 1:06 left in the period, this time setting up Olofsson to make it 4-2. 

It was no ordinary assist. The play began with Eichel winning a foot race against Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin to a loose puck in the corner of the Toronto zone. He used his body to shrug Muzzin away, carried the puck behind the net and - with all five Maple Leafs skaters focused on him - delivered a quick pass to Olofsson in the left faceoff circle.  

"He had almost all five of them on him," Olofsson said. "He held onto the puck and passed to me at the right moment, so I had a lot of time."

Video: TOR@BUF: Olofsson wires wrister past Hutchinson

Johansson spent seven seasons as Alex Ovechkin's teammate in Washington. He played with Taylor Hall in New Jersey and David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron in Boston. So, when he credits his young captain with having the ability to take over games, it means something.

"The way he can take over games, it's impressive," Johansson said. "Not a lot of guys can do that. He's so dominant when he gets going like that.

"He's so big and strong, too. It's not just that he can play with the puck and make plays. He's so big and strong and fast. He's got everything. When he does that, it kind of sparks the whole team."

Statistically speaking, Eichel is taking over games like never before. This was his sixth three-point outing of the season - two more than his previous career high, set in 2016-17. Only Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have more such games this season.

Eichel has tallied 15 points (8+7) during his eight-game point streak. Through 26 contests, he's on pace for 82-game totals of 50 goals and 107 points. 

Oh, and he has also never shied away from the rivalry with the Maple Leafs. He has 12 goals in 14 career contests against Buffalo's neighbors to the north, his best per-game output against any opponent.

The two teams meet again at Scotiabank Arena in less than 24 hours.

"We always play them hard and they always play us tough," Eichel said. "… It's good to see us get a win tonight. I don't think we did too well against them last year. We've got a big game tomorrow night. We know they're going to be ready to go. We've just got to be ready at puck drop."


Vesey makes it 3 in a row

The Maple Leafs struck early in the third period on a one-timer from Dmytro Timashov, cutting the Sabres' lead to 4-3 with 13:10 remaining. It was Vesey who provided the added insurance less than two minutes later. As with his last two goals, it was a quick reaction that put himself alone with the goaltender. 

Video: TOR@BUF: Vesey steals puck and goes five-hole

Vesey now has goals in three straight games since scoring his first of the season in Tampa on Monday.

"I guess the floodgates are open now," he said afterward. "I've been on some pretty good streaks in my career before. … Sometimes it's a funny game and there's nothing you can do. You play a lot of games; all you can do is show up the next day. I think my mindset has been a lot better this year."


Up next

The two teams will meet for the back end of the home-and-home set in Toronto on Saturday. Coverage on MSG begins at 6:30 p.m., or you can listen to the game on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7. 

Make sure to stay on MSG during the first and second intermissions for the premier of Beyond Blue and Gold: Ray vs. Domi. Find more information in the tweet below. 

 Tweet from @BuffaloSabres: Rob Ray and Tie Domi went toe to toe 13 times in their NHL careers...They were reunited this past summer.Where to watch "Beyond Blue & Gold: Ray vs Domi" this weekend:

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