LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Mark Stone knew exactly what teammate Jack Eichel was going through Thursday night. The Golden Knights captain has returned to Otttawa, his first NHL team, a number of times. So he’s felt the pressure of performing in front of fans who once had adored him.
Eichel felt it, too, against the Buffalo Sabres. Fans booed him in his second game back playing against his ex-teammates. They booed. Loudly. During warmups. And over and over on every one of his shifts.
In the end, Eichel got in the last word, scoring three times in the final period of a 7-4 victory, the Golden Knights’ ninth in a row and marking the finale of a five-game road swing.
“I think I knew what to expect coming into the game,” said Eichel, who also had a third-period assist as the Knights kept fighting off a pesky group of Sabres. “It felt good.”
Eichel spent five-plus seasons in Buffalo, a golden child, the second pick of the 2015 NHL draft, expected to lift the franchise from years of darkness. Instead, the bad years continued. And through coaching changes and disappointments, Eichel took a bunch of heat.
His trade to the Knights last season seems to have refreshed his outlook. That and surgery some 350 days ago that put an artificial disk in his neck has the league seeing a revitalized centerman.
“I’m very happy where I am right now,” said Eichel, 26, who leads the Knights in scoring with nine goals and 10 assists in 15 games. ” I just try to enjoy every night I’m out there, try not to take a night for granted.
“I’m just trying to enjoy all the moments.”
It helps that the Knights are winning. Thursday’s victory gives them a 13-2 record, tops in the NHL, just ahead of the 12-2 Boston Bruins.
Coach Bruce Cassidy, who was fired by the Bruins and eight days later, in June, hired by the Knights, said he was happy to see Eichel get back at the Buffalo fans.
“He wanted to play well here, I’m stating the obvious, and he did,” Cassidy said. “He has been good for us all year. I’m happy for him and the whole group.
“Been a long road trip and a nice way to finish.”
Both Stone and Cassidy said it’s a bit unpleasant to see a teammate booed. And both were somewhat emotional in showing their support after the game for Eichel.
“That’s one of the coolest games I’ve been a part of, especially in the regular season,” Stone said. “It feels great. I’m sure he feels a ton of emotion right now. It’s an incredible game for him.
“It’s tough, you’re getting booed every shift. It just says a lot about his character. I know people here think he doesn’t have character but, my god, we’ve seen what Jack really is. He’s carrying a big load for us. For him to be able to do that tonight, I know it’s special for him. I’m almost getting emotional just being a part of this. … We just wanted to support him.”
Cassidy noted how happy his players were after Eichel scored each of his goals. “I think you saw it on the bench,” he said. “Guys are excited for him. Listen, I don’t know the whole (story) … but no one likes to see a teammate get booed, right? I’m gonna say it as simple as I can. It hurts everybody, right, especially when you’re a close-knit team. So we’re happy for him.”
Paul Cotter’s goal late in the second snapped a 2-2 tie before Eichel went to work. He assisted on Alex Pietrangelo’s goal for a 4-2 lead at 16:08, then banged in a rebound for a 5-2 lead at 6:13. He then extended his arms, skated along the near boards, eliciting another chorus of boos.
After Buffalo made it 5-3, Eichel burst through the middle, took a Chandler Stephenson pass and rifled in a wrist shot at 14:37.
He got his final goal into an empty net at 19:52 and joked about it afterward, noting that he has missed at least two chances this season when facing empty nets. He also noted he missed breakaways early in the game, with Buffalo goaltender Eric Comrie looking sharp on both saves.
“I haven’t had too much luck this year with empy nets,” Eichel said. “I think I’ve missed a few. And I guess I’ll have to go back to my drawing board and work on my breakaways.”
For Cassidy, the performance was not a surprise. He said Eichel has played well all season.
“He’s a young guy,” Cassidy said. “He takes a lot of pride in his work. Again, I wasn’t in Buffalo. My guess is he took a lot of pride when he was here (in Buffalo). It just didn’t work out.
“It’s working out well for us. We’re happy to have him.”