That this is Jack Eichel's team is not to be debated and as captain of the Sabres he's proving it. Eichel always had the skill and skating and shot...and drive to win and that beet-red, post-game face after leaving it all on the ice. We've seen glimpses of that through his young career but lately those of us in Sabreland, as well as the rest of the NHL and national media outlets like ESPN, are just starting to realize what we have in No. 9.
Last night was a litmus test for the Sabres both individually and as a team and we could see how they matched up against an Eastern conference power. Despite playing a Washington team that was travelling back home for the second game of a back-to-back, the Capitals are still the defending Stanley Cup champions, still have the greatest goal-scorer of his generation in Alex Ovechkin and are still loaded for bear. Plus they seem to be extremely motivated as of late.
Eichel was up to the task last night scoring two goals on three shots while doing everything he could to try and lead his team to a win which included this beauty of a goal showing off his extreme skating ability, his deft stickwork and wicked shot:
"Coming soon to a theater near you," indeed, Mr. Jeanerette, or for now, to the ESPN top-10 highlights this morning.
Eichel seemed to be in his element playing against one of the best teams in the NHL with the league's hottest player in Ovechkin, who extended his career-best point-streak to 14 games with another goal.
With 33 games in the books this season and after playing against a team like the Capitals, we're starting to develop strong opinions as to who's up to the task and what is and is not working for the club.
To the latter we saw a Buffalo powerplay that worked last night. Although the gamesheet says that the Sabres went 2/3 with the man advantage, in essence it was 3/3 as Eichel scored at the exact moment their powerplay had ended on the clock.
The Sabres may have finally found the makeup of their first powerplay unit, and it's lethal. Eichel commanded his usual spot on the half-wall with Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner working below the dots. Rasmus Ristolainen patrols the point with rookie Rasmus Dahlin roaming the right point and moving down to open ice. With Dahlin finding open ice on the weak side, no longer do they need to work the Eichel/Reinhart/Skinner triangle down low or try to set Eichel up for the one-timer. Dahlin with his sense and skill-set create another option:
In sticking with special teams, the return of Marco Scandella on defense helps fortify a penalty kill that had faltered for a stretch but is now back in the top-10. Scandella, Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian are mainstays on the kill and when Jake McCabe gets back they'll have their full compliment of d-men to work with while short-handed. Up front Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons anchor the forwards while Evan Rodrigues and Vladimir Sobotka form the second pair. Head coach Phil Housley and assistant coach Steve Smith seem to be working Eichel in as a fifth penalty kill forward as well.
The Caps came into last night's game with the NHL's fourth-best powerplay (27.4%) and were stifled by the Sabres in four opportunities. Buffalo's kill-rate is now 82.6%, good for eighth in the league.
Individually, much of the focus has been on Rasmus the rookie, but 24 yr. old Ristolainen has been a beast as of late. Although we're not sure when it really began, his undressing of San Jose's Norris-winning defenseman Brent Burns late last month may have officially put him in beast mode. Beginning with that game against the Sharks, Ristolainen has eight points (1+7) over his last nine games and is a plus-3 while logging under 26:44 of ice-time only twice. He's logged over 31 minutes twice, including last night, and it's not just the amount of minutes he's playing but how he's playing them. The "Angry Finn" as he's been called has been tough to play against and proved it last night as he battling the 6'3" 235 lb Ovechkin all night. He's also gotten up ice sending 28 shots on goal during that stretch.
Buffalo's goaltending has been very good to excellent with starter Carter Hutton once again coming up big when needed. In his last two starts since returning from an injury Hutton has posted save percentages of .962 against Arizona and .921 last night as he turned away 35 of 38 Washington shots. One thing he can't overcome is turnovers by his defense and/or miscommunication like what happened last night.
With injuries hitting Buffalo's defense there have been some players playing above their skill-level and it's a weakness that's been exploited by the opposition. We know the names and last night they were responsible, at least in part, for all three Capitals goals. When McCabe gets back, and even getting a solid reserve like Casey Nelson back or call-up Lawrence Pilut who performed very well in his first taste of NHL action before suffering a lower-body injury, things will fall into place more. The d-corps still has some issues, but as a group they've performed admirably thus far.
Not so much for Buffalo's middle-six up front. As mentioned in the last blog
they're having trouble finding the net and it's getting more and more noticeable with each passing game, especially against a team like Washington. Eleven goals in the last 18 games just isn't cutting it but there's not much the team can do right now as they're very tight against the salary cap ceiling.
This evening's matchup against Atlantic division rival Boston represents another big challenge for the Sabres. The Bruins have struggled with injuries this season but are getting healthy and are beginning to play better. Although they haven't gone on a long run, they've managed to keep it close as they're only four points behind Buffalo for third place in the division.
The Sabres are 4-7-2 against Boston during the Eichel-era in Buffalo and unfortunately they began this season with a 4-0 loss at KeyBank Center where they're only 1-5-1 vs. the Bruins the past three years. They've done much better at TD Garden in Boston with a 3-2-1 record over that span.
Eichel has struggled mightily against his hometown team. Since his first game at Boston as a rookie where he had two goals and two assists while helping the Sabres stage a ferocious 6-3 comeback win the Sabres captain has connected for only one goal and two assists in 10 games vs. the Bruins while fielding a minus-11 rating.
It's something to look at as the two teams hit the ice for a 5 pm showdown on NHL Network.