TORONTO – It took more than 40 minutes, but captain Jack Eichel ignited the Buffalo Sabres again Tuesday, helping them roar back late in their 5-3 loss to the Maple Leafs.
After falling behind 3-0, Eichel assisted on defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s power-play goal 1:29 into the third period, extending his point streak to 17 games.
Then after the Leafs restored their three-goal lead, Eichel scored at 6:30, his 24th goal in only 35 games this season.
Suddenly, the Sabres, who looked like toast after 40 minutes, had life again.
“We were angry after two periods,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said.
When winger Kyle Okposo scored at 14:41, it looked like they could pull off an improbable comeback before the crowd of 19,365 inside Scotiabank Arena.
“When we’re playing that way, that we can play with any team in this league,” Sabres winger Victor Olofsson said. “We just got to do it from the start.”
Okposo said: “We make it 4-3 and then we start to believe. We had some chances there to tie the game and being down 3-0, that’s what you want.”
On a power play barely a minute after Okposo’s goal – Eichel drew a holding penalty – Olofsson nearly beat Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.
“We started attacking the game a little more,” Eichel said of the third period. “We came after them, we forechecked the puck better. I thought we were more tenacious, we got a little grittier. It worked out for us.”
Well, it almost worked out.
Winger Ilya Mikheyev’s six-on-four empty-net goal sealed the Leafs’ victory, which moved them into third place in the Atlantic Division, just a point behind the Sabres.
While the third-period surge was nice, it was too little, too late. The Sabres’ start – they fell behind just 2:30 in – was awful.
“We were definitely off the pace,” Krueger said following the Sabres’ second regulation loss in 11 games. “It seems like the break from the early game Saturday until now took us a little out of our focus. I’m … disappointed that we didn’t make more of a game of it early because you could see when we made the push and we got to our game, we found our legs, there was a real chance to take points here.”
Eichel has scored a whopping 31 points during his streak, the NHL’s longest this season. The slick center can tie Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault’s franchise record 18-game point streak Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Incredibly, Perreault’s mark has stood since December 1971, early in the Sabres’ second season.
On Tuesday, Eichel tied another Hall of Famer, Dave Andreychuk, who had 17-game point streaks for the Sabres in 1991-92 and 1992-93.
“He’s obviously doing pretty amazing things right now,” Okposo said. “He’s really come into his own and becoming a superstar. He’s doing some special things.”
But Krueger knows the Sabres rely on Eichel too much.
“We have to push to find deeper scoring in the lineup, for sure,” he said. “It’s excellent that Jack does that. He is playing at the top of his game and it’s a pleasure to stand behind him every night here and see how much heart and soul he’s got.
“But in a game like this, we need more depth, we need the whole lineup to come through to be able to get points at the end.”
In his fifth straight start, goalie Linus Ullmark looked sharp, making 28 saves.
Center Auston Matthews scored twice for the Leafs. Forwards Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov had their other goals.
“It’s hard if you give a team like Toronto time and space,” Olofsson said. “They’re probably going to score a few goals.”
The Sabres will practice today in Philadelphia.