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On track with Jack

It’s now been 10 games since Jack Eichel returned to the lineup for the Buffalo Sabres. Jack was sidelined for the previous 21 games after suffering a high-ankle sprain during practice the day before the season home opener against Montreal. Since his return, there’s been a proverbial “sigh of relief” and a new found optimism that just wasn’t present during his absence.

It’s important to not reduce all the Sabres’ early season struggles solely on the absence of Eichel, though. The Sabres have had to endure injuries to top forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Evander Kane, as well as defensemen Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov. Injuries of this magnitude would have serious side effects on any team in the NHL and the Sabres were no exception.

After21 games into the season, the Sabres sat dead last in their division with just 19 points. Scoring more than one goal a night would prove almost impossible as the Sabres mustered just 39 during this stretch (a cringe-worthy 1.86 goals-for average). The dismal numbers and mediocre play were just too reminiscent of the suffering-laden ‘tank seasons’.

While the Sabres did their best to tread water during Jack’s absence, fans and players alike got acquainted to other young rising stars around the NHL. Connor McDavid now leads the league in points (40), Patrick Laine already has 18 goals and Auston Matthews scored four goals in his 1st game and now has 15. Sabres fans could only imagine what Jack’s numbers would be if he played those first 21 games.

Jack’s inevitable return would come in Ottawa in late November, and within 10 minutes, he gave us a taste of what we had been missing. An early power play gave the Sabres an opportunity to put together a five-man unit that hadn’t been seen since training camp. Eichel made a seemingly impossible pass to Kyle Okposo from the half-wall to set him up for the first goal of the game.

Three minutes later, the Sabres found themselves on the power play again. This time Jack, on his off-side, fired an absolute bullet past the Ottawa netminder. All a result of having Eichel, the face of the franchise, in the lineup.

The next game for the Sabres was against the Rangers, the first home game for Jack Eichel this season. The Sabres trailed 3-2 going into the 3rd period. Eichel, pointless through the first two, may have been feeling the effects of not playing for an extended period of time.

However, he did what elite players do – take the game over. With under eight minutes to go in the game Eichel stormed down the wing and fired a wrist shot past Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game at 3. Two minutes later, on an attempted pass to Evander Kane, Eichel scored again on a fortuitous bounce to give the Sabres a 4-3 lead and victory. Two games with Eichel, two wins. The Sabres could finally recapture some of the new hope and expectations that accompanied them during the off season.

The next eight games wouldn’t all be victories, but still, Eichel’s impact has been palpable. In 10 games since his return, the Sabres hold a record of 5-2-3. The Sabres are also averaging exactly three goals per game, a stark difference from when he was absent.

Eichel’s return has given depth to the Sabres’ lineup, creating more favorable matchups against other teams’ top lines. This puts less burden on players like Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Okposo and Matt Moulson to produce and carry a load that they simply aren’t capable of carrying without Eichel.

While Jack had a highlight-filled night against Los Angeles (two goals, one assist), one of his best games in this 10-game stretch came against the Carolina Hurricanes, a game he was held pointless in. Jack managed to lead all forwards in ice time at 21:16. The better part of this game was a ‘snoozer’, defense vs. defense, with virtually no room on the ice. In such a tight-checking game, the Sabres needed someone to step up and take the game over.

Multiple times throughout the game, especially in the 3rd period, Jack used his elite speed and skating to bring the puck out of the defensive zone, an area of the ice where the Sabres seemed to get caught in trouble multiple times throughout the game. The Sabres would lose in a shootout, but nonetheless fought hard for that one point. Bylsma, acknowledging Jack’s game said, “He played last game because he was the guy going and skating and been creating for our team when we needed it.”

With eight points (five goals, three assists) in 10 games, Eichel has provided a much-needed boost to a team that consistently has had trouble scoring goals this season. The ‘Eichel effect’ is not only found on the score sheet, though.

Bylsma who has seen another element of Jack’s game said, “What you don’t get to see is his intensity on the bench and he’s right now one of the guys that’s leading on the bench and his words and his demeanor. That’s something he’s been pretty consistent with and he’s trying to go on the ice and do it with his play as well.”

While many don’t see the Sabres competing for a playoff spot, the numbers may point towards the contrary. The Sabres are in a weak division, only sitting five points behind third-placed Boston with three games in hand.

If the Sabres want any chance of making the playoffs they’ll have to catch some of their division foes in the standings, because the wild card spot may be out of reach with such a strong Metropolitan division.

Regardless, the Sabres are trending up since the return of Jack and this alone should give fans a reason to be optimistic.

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