The Sabres emerged victorious in Jack Eichel’s season debut, besting the Ottawa Senators 5-4 in a nail-biter. Eichel made his presence immediately felt, registering a goal and an assist in the first period. The offense operated with an efficiency we had yet to see this season, scoring three times on the power-play.
“I was really excited. I had a lot of energy waiting for the game to start. Getting a couple points on PP settles you down.” – Jack Eichel
Eichel said he was a little tired after the game, adding, “I’m happy to be back in the swing of things. The ankle feels really good.”
The first period was all Sabres, with goals from Kyle Okposo, Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, giving the team a 3-1 lead heading to the intermission. The Sabres out-shot the Senators 14-7 on the period. Eichel’s presence was felt immediately and reminded fans of what the team has been missing during the first quarter of the season. The no-look, laser-point passes, flawless stickhandling, and a cannon of a shot were on display tonight showing that he hadn’t lost a single step. Robin Lehner held off a handful of excellent opportunities for the Senators early on.
Lehner left the game late in the first period with a leg injury, forcing Anders Nilsson to close out the contest. At that point, the Sabres seemed to lose all of the momentum they had built in the first, allowing Ottawa to out-shoot them 16-4 in the period. Despite the low shot count, Sam Reinhart was able to register a goal off of a deflection from Evander Kane, preserving the Sabres two goal lead. 43 seconds later, Ottawa scored with just over two minutes left in the period to bring the Sens back within a goal. Hoffman would register a hat-trick on the night, making the best of a couple one-timers on the power-play. The Sabres limped out of the period looking like a team primed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The third period was an extremely sloppy affair on both sides, that is until Ryan O’Reilly notched his second goal of the evening on the power-play with just over three minutes remaining in regulation. Johan Larsson took a late penalty giving the Senators one last opportunity to mount a comeback. They nearly succeeded when Craig Anderson was pulled, giving them a two man advantage. Soon after the sixth skater came onto the ice, Mike Hoffman scored with 1:31 remaining, narrowing the Sabres lead to one. Anders Nilsson and the defense played well in the last stretch, clearing the puck with relative ease, and sealed the victory.
Despite the win, there a few lingering concerns for the Sabres. The status of Robin Lehner remains unknown as he exited hastily, favoring his left leg. The severity of the injury is currently unknown, but there is a very real chance Anders Nilsson will have to carry the load in net for the foreseeable future. If Lehner is indeed out for an extended period of time, the team will no doubt call up Linus Ullmark from Rochester to back-up Nilsson. Ullmark showed well last season as a rookie posting .913 save percentage in 20 starts.
The biggest concern for the Sabres after this contest is the lackluster play in the defensive zone. Josh Gorges looks absolutely lost in his own end, and Cody Franson isn’t much better. Taylor Fedun has picked up some of the slack, but the team desperately needs Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov to return from injury. Rasmus Ristolainen continues to shine despite an underperforming supporting cast on the blue line.
One thing is certain. Fans can get used to offensive output like we saw tonight. Hopefully the return of Jack Eichel is exactly what the offense needed to push it forward. The defense however, needs to do their part, especially if the Sabres are going to be thin at goalie moving forward.
The Sabres host the New York Rangers Thursday night at the KeyBank Center at 7p.m.