ST. PAUL, Minn. – Jack Eichel’s off-ice resume was already well defined before he stepped onto the ice of the Xcel Energy Center on Monday night. His credentials as the next great American star were established via some impressive work in his home state of Massachusetts, capped off in April when he became just the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey.
To nobody’s surprise, he was the second overall pick in June’s NHL draft, and headed to Buffalo with fans in western New York expecting nothing less from him than the rejuvenation of a Sabres franchise that’s fallen on hard times recently.
It’s just one game at the NHL level, and a preseason game at that, but Eichel’s performance in a 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild served to write an impressive cover page on what all expect will be an eye-popping on-ice resume for the Buffalo rookie.
With the game knotted 2-2 in the third period and the Sabres killing a penalty, Eichel pounced when Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon fumbled with a puck at the blue line and the youngster sailed down the rink unimpeded, tucking a shot between the knees of Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper for his first pro goal.
“I caught a little break there and it was nice to get the first one,” said Eichel, sporting rosy red cheeks and a matted mop of curly blonde hair peeking out from under his blue Sabres cap in the post-game locker room. “These goalies are so big and athletic these days, you just try to move them and find little holes. Luckily I was able to find one there.”
The goal came just a few minutes after Eichel had capped off a 2-on-1 rush to the Wild net, feeding a pass to linemate (and current housemate) Matt Moulson for the tying goal. It came two periods after Eichel had served notice that his highlight-reel skills from Boston University will translate to this level, when he slipped past Spurgeon at the Wild blue line with a spin-o-rama move that had fans gasping already. After the game, even the opposing locker room had nice things to say about the bright future of Buffalo hockey.
“He’s everything that you hear,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who may well share a Team USA locker room with Eichel in the future. “Steady, big, he’s got a big, long reach, skates upright, slows the game down. Good player.”
Eichel is adjusting to life in the NHL with a unique arrangement that has him living with Moulson, similar to Sidney Crosby’s days living with Mario Lemiuex as a rookie in Pittsburgh. After Moulson scored off a pretty set-up from the rookie, the Sabres alternate captain said he enjoyed this glimpse of what life might be like alongside Eichel.
“I’ll take 20 of those off the feed from Jack,” Moulson said. “He’s the type of player where if you get open he’s getting you the puck. His head for the game is tremendous and that goal he scored, to see him read the play, poke it out and I don’t think there are too many guys that can catch him once he gets a step on them. He’s a great player, easy to play with.”
And Moulson joked that the living arrangements will become easier the more of those pretty cross-ice passes he gets at the goalmouth.
“I only charge him rent if he stops feeding me,” Moulson said, with a grin.