TORONTO – I feel good, sometimes I don’t…
These are the oh-so-fitting lyrics Drake chants out of the Buffalo Sabres’ portable speakers as the NHL’s worst hockey team turns up “God’s Plan” and celebrates snuffing out the Toronto Maple Leafs’ home-ice win streak at 13, thanks to an inspired effort by Jack Eichel.
“How can you not enjoy that? It’s always a lot of fun when you come in here and win,” says Eichel, scoring twice in the 3-2 upset.
“It’s a big win. They’re the hottest team at home in the league right now. It’s an emotional game, a rivalry for us, and we took a good lickin’ Saturday in New York. It’s a good response for the group.”
Eichel’s postgame tone is yards more conversational than the I-hate-Mondays mood he struck with the scrum after the morning skate.
The franchise centre recounts his opening goal, the one where he forced a turnover by his pal Auston Matthews in the corner, took a short pass from Zemgus Girgensons down low, deked Frederik Andersen in a cross-crease streak.
“I hadn’t scored in a month and a half,” says Eichel, a bundle of sweaty relief topped with a faux hawk.
“It’s been a little bit. I think I’ve been kinda gripping my stick a little, maybe trying to make the cute play. I thought I just worked tonight. That’s the attitude I came in with: Just work hard. Take care of our own end. Compete. Battle. I thought I was rewarded early, and when that happens, it gets your game going a little bit, right?”
Eichel says he was surprised to find himself blasting past both Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner on his beautiful third-period rush that allowed him to slide the puck through Andersen’s legs while fending off the Russian D-man.
“He’s definitely a top player in the league,” Gardiner had said pre-game, before sprinkling in some foreshadowing. “Really fast guy, so we gotta be aware of him getting behind us.”
Eichel was buzzing, firing four shots, winning a game-high nine face-offs, and toping all forwards with an ice-time of 21:08. He set up Jordan Nolan on beautiful 2-on-1 pass that required an Andersen highlight-reel save and nearly completed a hat trick when he chased down Gardiner, throwing the defenceman but not the puck into the Leafs’ empty net in the final minute.
“Jack’s game all night was terrific, from start to finish. He really brought it, and it’s great to see him step up,” Sabres coach Phil Housley says.
Only four Sabres are signed beyond 2019-20: Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Rasmus Ristolainen and Eichel, the $80-million man.
In the midst of last week’s atrocious 0-4 performance — which featured losses to the lottery-bound Coyotes, Canadiens and Rangers and saw Buffalo get outscored by a combined 16-2 — Housley pulled his leadership group aside and demanded them to be better.
We can approve of this type of coach’s challenge, and it resonated with Eichel.
“We have some young guys who are just coming into the league. Whether or not they’re comfortable yet, it’s on the leadership and the core of this team to push forward and set the example. We’re the guys who are going to be here for a while,” Eichel says.
“We’re the guys who need to turn this around. In tough times, you need to bear down. We gotta get this thing turned around. It’s been a tough few years. As a group, we need to take the right steps to get out of this losing habit here. Tonight is a good example of what we can do when we put our head down.
“In the future, you want to see things get better, and I think it starts with me, so I gotta be better.”
As Eichel delivers his call to action, Drake raps, “I can’t do this on my own,” and much-hyped, newly signed teenage prospect Casey Mittelstadt flies from Minnesota to Buffalo.
“It’s not all on him. I have a big responsibility here, too,” says O’Reilly, noting the high ankle sprain that cost Eichel 15 games. “Leadership’s plural. Eichs is an elite player. I thought he’s handled himself very well.
“We’ve got to figure it out in this locker room. The guys that go on the ice every day, we have to change it.”
It may start with Eichel, but re-rebuilding the Sabres will require a group effort, and patience on top of patience. The D core looks thin on a good day, their scoring ranks dead last, and the only goalie under contract for 2018-19 (Linus Ullmark, who suffered an upper-body injury at Monday’s morning skate) is unproven. Questions have risen about Hall of Fame player Phil Housley’s abilities as a rookie head coach.
Perhaps above all, though, the culture of losing must be vanquished. To that end, Eichel led the group with a baby step on Monday.
“They have to deal with it for now. They’ve got some good players. They’re going to be up and coming. I’m not sure when that is. You have to respect the competitiveness they play with,” said Toronto’s Nazem Kadri, speaking from experience down the hall.
“It’s not going to last forever.”