TORONTO – By Jack Eichel’s standards, he hadn’t scored in an eternity.
Thanks to the Buffalo Sabres center’s short slump and a high ankle sprain that cost him 15 games, he went 46 days and six games without scoring before his nifty two-goal effort in Monday’s 3-2 come-from-behind victory.
“I hadn’t scored in a month and a half, it’s not a little bit,” Eichel said after the Sabres ended the Maple Leafs’ 13-game home winning streak before a capacity crowd of 19,108. “I think I’ve kind of been gripping my stick a little, maybe trying to make the cute play. I thought I just worked tonight, that’s kind of the attitude I came into the game with.”
Eichel showcased that attitude early, knocking star center Auston Matthews off the puck deep in the Toronto zone and going to the net. A second later, he scored his first goal since Feb. 8, tucking the puck by goalie Frederik Andersen after Zemgus Girgensons fed him at 3:23.
After Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson tied the game 7:56 into the third period, Eichel got a step on the defenders and put his seemingly harmless shot by Andersen at 9:37.
“I was a little surprised when I picked up the puck that I had a step on both D-men,” Eichel said. “Good bounce through his legs, I guess. I don’t know if it surprised him, but I’ll take it.”
Eichel has scored a team-leading 24 goals, equaling his total from each of his first two NHL seasons.
“Jack’s game all night was terrific,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said.
Clearly, Eichel took it upon himself to help end the Sabres’ four-game losing streak. Following Friday’s 3-0 loss to Montreal, Housley called out the team’s leadership group.
“It starts with me and the leaders on the team,” Eichel said. “Phil challenged us this week. It’s a big win, they’re the hottest team at home in the league right now. It’s an emotional game, a rivalry for us.
“We took a pretty good licking on Saturday night in New York, (a 5-1 loss). It’s a really good response from the group. I think it goes to show when we do things the right way and compete for each other, make hard plays, you can have success.”
The playoff-bound Maple Leafs hadn’t lost at the Air Canada Centre since Jan. 22.
“It’s important,” Sabres goalie Chad Johnson said of ending their top rival’s streak. “It’s not the end of world. We’re not going out, throwing a big party for it. But it’s always nice beating that team regardless of the situation, there’s definitely a little added boost to, ending the streak.”
The Sabres also denied the Leafs their franchise-record 46th win.
Johnson was in the shower at 4:15 Monday afternoon when goalie coach Andrew Allen called him and told him he would be playing less than three hours later.
Linus Ullmark was supposed to start, but the youngster suffered an upper-body injury when a puck hit him during the morning skate, Housley said. The Sabres held him out as a precaution.
Johnson got on the second bus from the hotel to the rink.
“It’s a little bit like, I wouldn’t say panic, I always like to prepare more,” said Johnson, who made 39 saves in his ninth win. “I’m a guy who likes the preparation part, I love to really go through the routine.”
Housley said: “He was our best player by far.”
Goalie Robin Lehner backed Johnson up. Johnson missed two games last week after taking a puck in the head.
Top-seeded St. Cloud State University’s first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament allowed the Sabres to sign defense prospect Will Borgen to a three-year, entry-level contract Sunday.
The Sabres’ old regime drafted the 6-foot-2, 188-pound Borgen in the fourth round, 92nd overall, in 2015.
“What we see in Will is a real physical defenseman, great footwork,” Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said. “Like all defensemen, there’s an adjustment to pro hockey and you have to be patient with him in that regard.”
Borgen, 21, will finish this season with the Rochester Americans on an amateur tryout.
Notes: Housley switched up his top defense pairs, putting rookie Brendan Guhle beside Rasmus Ristolainen and Nelson beside Marco Scandella. … Housley also moved Sam Reinhart to right wing beside center Johan Larsson and Jordan Nolan. Kyle Okposo, meanwhile, took Reinhart’s old spot with center Ryan O’Reilly and Scott Wilson. … Defensemen Nathan Beaulieu and Justin Falk returned after sitting out two games. Housley scratched Victor Antipin and Josh Gorges.