Red-hot Sabres star Jack Eichel providing hope for playoff-starved team

sabres-centre-jack-eichel-celebrates-goal-against-islanders

Buffalo Sabres centre Jack Eichel (9) celebrates his third period goal with left wing Victor Olofsson (68) on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019 in Uniondale, N.Y. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The Buffalo Sabres have been doing some great things as part of their 50th season celebrations, including dressing up KeyBank Center to look like their former rockin’ home, ‘The Aud.’

Of course, the throwback move they’d really like to bust out is making the playoffs. The Sabres of yesteryear used to do that regularly, but Western New York hasn’t seen post-season hockey since 2011.

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That could change this year, almost entirely because Jack Eichel is making more of an impact on games than any player wearing blue and yellow has since — with apologies to 2010-11 Ryan Miller — the turn of the century, when Dominik Hasek’s fish-on-land puck-stopping approach nearly caught Buffalo a Cup.

Though the Sabres lost their only game of the weekend — a 3-2 overtime decision on the road against the tough New York Islanders — Eichel picked up a point for the 16th straight contest, giving him the longest such streak in the NHL this year. The 23-year-old — who’s tied for fifth in league scoring with 48 points — actually potted a couple of points, the second of which was a power-play goal that tied the game with 1:46 remaining in regulation time.

By snagging a single point versus an Islanders club that has won six straight home tilts, the Sabres remained in second place in an Atlantic Division that almost feels like it’s in some kind of holding pattern until the real Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs show up.

(We’re still sure that’s happening, right?)

At this time a year ago, the Sabres held third place in the division with a 19-9-5 record built mostly on the back of a 10-game winning streak that was peppered with extra-time victories. The club came completely unglued in the second half of the season and missed the playoffs by a margin so wide they basically had to axe coach Phil Housley.

This year’s Ralph Krueger-led squad also got off to a great start, but was really starting to slide in November, when Eichel decided he’d seen enough. Game 1 of this points streak was a 4-2 win over Ottawa on Nov. 16 in which Eichel bagged all four goals to stop a six-game losing skid for Buffalo. Though they haven’t been setting the world on fire during Eichel’s month-long run, the Sabres are 7-5-4 and they’ve picked up at least a point in nine of their past 10.

And while Eichel doesn’t have near the support network other top-flight stars get — McDavid has Draisaitl, Marchand has Pastrnak and Bergeron, MacKinnon plays on an offensively loaded Avs squad — some of the Sabres are doing what they can. Rookie Victor Olofsson, riding shotgun with Eichel, has seven goals in his past 16 outings, Linus Ullmark has been steady in goal and Rasmus Dahlin — who missed more than two weeks with a concussion — has a pair of assists in two games since his return on Dec. 12.

This is undeniably the Eichel show, though. And in a season where the Sabres are honouring their past, nobody is providing more hope for a happy immediate future.

Other Weekend Takeaways

• A very short time ago, the Edmonton Oilers’ season seemed like it couldn’t be going much better and the Calgary Flames’ year was one from hell. Both Alberta teams lost on the weekend and my mind is a little blown by the fact — given the nature of the previous conversations around them — that they actually have the exact same 18-13-4 record right now. Even their goal differentials are close (Edmonton minus-3, Calgary minus-9). This has been such a topsy-turvy season in a few Canadian burghs.

• It was a bad weekend for the phrase “and he will not return to the game.” Tyson Barrie’s X-rays were negative, but there’s still concern about the ankle injury he sustained in Toronto’s win over Edmonton on Saturday. That same night, the reigning league scoring champion, Nikita Kucherov, blocked a John Carlson shot that immediately sent the Russian winger to the dressing room.

Updates, presumably, will arrive on Monday.

• The Bolts lost 5-2 to Washington thanks to great goaltending from Ilya Samsonov and just as Tampa remains stuck in neutral, the Nashville Predators continue to flounder in the Central Division. The Preds hold games in hand on the teams around them, but they’re creeping ever closer to now-or-never time, sitting just one point up on basement-dwelling Chicago in the group.

Nashville was dropped by Dallas on home ice on Saturday in a game where the Preds put 38 pucks on the Stars goal and the visitors won 4-1 despite mustering just 22 shots on Pekka Rinne. The contest was definitely a microcosm of the Predators’ problems: Nashville allows the third-fewest shots against per game, do a solid job of limiting high-danger chances, but only seven teams have a worse five-on-five save percentage than what Rinne and Juuse Saros have provided their team.

• San Jose halted a six-game losing streak to hand Bob Boughner his first victory as Sharks head coach on Saturday, New Jersey — sans Taylor Hall, lest he be hurt in advance of a trade — snapped a seven-game skid on the same night to give Alain Nasreddine his first win as an NHL coach and Eric Staal blasted home career point No. 1,000 in fine fashion on Sunday afternoon.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Winnipeg Jets (20-11-2) – Blake Wheeler had a stretch this year where he scored three times in 22 outings, but he’s really starting to find his rhythm as the second-line centre, notching four goals and 14 points in his past 10 outings.

2. Calgary Flames (18-13-4) – A 4-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday was the first loss of the Geoff Ward era.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (16-14-4) – Saturday’s win over Edmonton gave the Leafs six of a possible eight points on a tough roadie. Time to come home and make some hay with a relatively soft schedule the next month or so.

4. Edmonton Oilers (18-13-4) – The goalies have turned in an .860 save percentage during the Oilers’ current four-game losing skid.

5. Montreal Canadiens (15-12-2) – Losing a home game to the Red Wings before you kick off a seven-game road trip is rarely a good idea.

6. Vancouver Canucks (16-14-4) – The Canucks are about to embark on their second five-game homestand of the month and need to start stacking wins immediately.

7. Ottawa Senators (14-17-2) – The only thing better than netting a hat trick is doing it against the club that cut ties with you, as Anthony Duclair did versus the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.

In Your Ear

The world junior championship starts in 10 days, which is always our cue to get Sportsnet prospect guru Sam Cosentino on the Tape to Tape podcast to tell you who will shine in the teenage showcase. Before “Sammy Coz” joins us on Friday, check out our discussion with Sean Reynolds on the surprising success of the Jets.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

The Week Ahead

• One week after Toronto swung through, it’s the Habs’ turn for a Western Canada roadie. They’re actually hitting all four Western clubs, working left to right from Vancouver through Winnipeg.

• Taylor Hall trade watch continues, with seven days to go before the holiday trade freeze.

• The Western Conference showdown of the week happens on Monday when the Avs visit the Blues, while the signature East tilt sees the Bruins at the Islanders on Thursday.

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