The Buffalo Sabers are ready for the bright spotlight of the NHL

The Buffalo Sabers are ready for the bright spotlight of the NHL

Jack EichelBuffalo’s latest running back is more than just Jack Eichel.

The you will knowThe former captain is a starter. What’s happening in Buffalo this season goes beyond the surface.

When the league leader Vegas Golden Knights will square off on Thursday, it will be the second time Eichel has faced his former team since their messy divorce was finalized in November 2021. This trade of the club’s second overall pick in 2015 marked the beginning of its next, and hopefully the best. — chapter, a slow but steady build back to being a contender.

Executing that vision has been Buffalo’s mission this season via a respectable 7-6-0 start. It’s what makes Thursday night important for the Sabres, not as a game against Eichel, but a game of real importance to them.

“I think we embrace it. Like, we embrace this game,” Buffalo’s captain said. Kyle Okposo said “It’s a big game, and we haven’t been in big games in the last 10 years because we haven’t been in the playoffs. We’re trying to build something where we can play in those games and have them mean something and go up. times we did last year. Let’s keep it up. I don’t think there’s any more pressure, but let’s raise the challenge.”

Buffalo was in a different place when the first Eichel Circus hit the ground running on March 10. The Sabers finished in the bottom five of the standings at 19-32-8 while Vegas had a 32-23-4 record in the middle of the pack. . Still, the hometown team took care of business 3-1 win which included Eichel being roundly booed by the Sabers faithful, and that was right during his tribute video.

Whether it was the poor reception or the poor result, Eichel didn’t hold back in the postgame comments fans will remember Thursday night.

“It was the loudest I’ve ever heard this place,” Eichel opined last spring. “Seriously. It only took seven years and me leaving for me to get into the game.”

And these birds?

“They just have to do it [have been] boo because they wish he was still here.”

Eichel is long gone from Buffalo after a tumultuous six-year relationship and a bitter split. The Sabers had high hopes when they drafted him, envisioning a surefire superstar center to lead the franchise’s rejuvenation. This never happened. During Eichel’s tenure, including three seasons as captain, the Sabers did not finish above .500, let alone make a postseason appearance.

The lack of results on the ice was frustrating enough. The breaking point for the two sides was more personal. It stemmed from Eichel’s neck injury in early 2021; wanted to repair the disc problem with an artificial replacement surgery never before performed on an NHL player. Buffalo wouldn’t allow it, and Eichel wouldn’t die, so Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams stripped Eichel of the captaincy in September 2021 and then traded him to the Golden Knights in exchange for a package that included Alex fabric i Peyton Krebs.

Vegas immediately gave Eichel the green light to do his procedure. After a long rehab, Eichel made his Golden Knights debut in February. A month later, he was leaving Buffalo with zero points and a minus-one rating against his former club.

Eichel’s successful start to the season — six goals and 15 points in 14 games — shows just how good the Golden Knights have been, producing their current eight-game winning streak and moving into first place in the NHL standings at 11-2-0. His hot hand could add more spice to the upcoming matchup.

Buffalo has gone on a streak in the opposite direction, losing three straight after going 7-3-0 out of the gate. It’s another reason why Thursday carries so much weight. The Sabers remember how Eichel was received last time; that passion plays into his hands. But he’ll be up against the NHL’s best in what could be the ultimate downfall destruction.

“Everybody knows what happened last year,” Okposo said. “We’re just going to play by ear and try to feed off the crowd. We know people are obviously excited for this game. And we’re excited to get to our game and show that we can compete and that we can play with some of the best teams in the league. Make no mistake, that’s what these guys are and they’re playing really well and they’re the No. 1 team in the league. So we’ve got a great test and we’re hoping to use that energy from the crowd.”

DON GRANATO COULD feel the trap coming.

He didn’t like how the Sabers practiced Monday after losing road games to Carolina and Tampa Bay. Buffalo had Arizona in town on Tuesday before their matchups against Vegas and Boston. Granato knew it would be easy to miss the coyotes. And the Sabers did, losing 4-1 to set up a season-long three-game skid.

Which, conveniently, leads directly into facing the Pacific and Atlantic Division leaders back to back.

“I didn’t like it,” Granato said of the Arizona game’s place on the schedule. “Now, did I not like it, did I bring any negative energy to it? That’s a thing for me, too. You can go back after that game and you can probably say, ‘I told you so,’ because he played. the way he played. That’s what we wish we had done better.”

Hard lessons are part of the learning process. So is creating, and then maintaining, an identity. Granato’s focus is to unload it on his players, so it becomes second nature regardless of whether his opponent gets up or falters.

Vegas is definitely in the former category. Eichel has been a great collaborator in making it so. Granato, like Okposo, thinks these are positive things for the Sabres. Give Buffalo a jolt to shake off some of its current doldrums.

“We don’t know what the environment will be [on Thursday], but it could have quite a lot of energy,” Granato said. “That’s great. This is exciting. It’s good for our guys. You have to admit that you are two teams that made a great trade with very good hockey players both ways. Anyone playing against their old team always wants to do well. Break the monotony of this year [82-game season]. But the outcome will be decided by who can get to their game and play it. I think our guys are fully engaged and focused on that. I think the other side just adds fun and flavor.”

Eichel’s trade allowed for a true homecoming, and that was Tuch’s. The player from central New York grew up a fan of the Sabres. He’s already on pace for a potential career year this season, with seven goals and 11 points in 13 games. Meanwhile, Krebs, 21, is slowly making progress with two assists in 11 games. It’s all part of the process.

Granato didn’t know what to expect from either Tuch or Krebs when Eichel was traded. Looking back, he has no complaints about how that trade played out or what they’ve added since then.

“I’m really happy with where they are,” Granato said. “I don’t remember my expectations from when we first got them, but I think they’ve contributed a lot to our team and the direction we’re going and they’re both players that will grow with our group. That’s there.”

TAGE THOMPSON NO it matters who is across the ice.

Eichel or no Eichel. There is a job to be done.

“I try not to focus on all that [hysteria]” he said. “Ours is just to focus on the game, what we have to do to win. Outside noise is just outside noise. It’s a good challenge and I think we’re ready for it.”

Eric Comrie he agrees The Sabers goaltender could feel it during Wednesday’s practice. Buffalo’s swagger was making an appearance. Comrie was pleased to welcome him back.

“You start to see confidence build,” he said. “And the morale comes back a little bit, everybody starts to be more positive, and that’s when things click again. It’s always, at first, your attitude starts to go down and then all of a sudden your game starts to come down and Then all of a sudden your attitude starts to come back and your game starts to come back. So I think there’s a big correlation between positivity and positive things happening on the ice.”

All Buffalo has to do now is translate that against Las Vegas. The Sabers have dealt with some injuries recently, including a Rasmus Dahlin (who missed the Tampa Bay game with an upper-body ailment), Matthias Samuelsson (lower body) i Henry Jokihar (facial fracture). This recent stretch has given Buffalo its first taste of adversity this season. It won’t be the last.

But the Sabers haven’t forgotten their identity and don’t plan to, regardless of what old friends are now waiting in the wings.

“I think we have a really good team,” Thompson said. “I think everybody here believes that, too. So I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody in this room that we’re coming out hot. We’re going through a little bit of a slump right now, but we’ve had a good chance [against Vegas] to get back in the win column, so we just have to turn the page and move forward.”

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