BUFFALO – Long after Sabres center Jack Eichel leaves the rink, his struggles still weigh heavy in his mind.
“I take it home,” Eichel said Wednesday after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the Boston Bruins at KeyBank Center.
So naturally, Eichel’s frustration was visible as his career-long five-game pointless streak hit as the Sabres lost four straight contests before their Christmas break.
“You could see it in his body language,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “You could see it in his play … desperately trying to make plays and make something happen for our team.”
The three-day recess came at the perfect time for Eichel, who went home to Massachusetts for the first time since August.
“It was probably good to go home and see my family a little bit, definitely try to get my mind off of it,” said Eichel, who scored a goal and two points in Tuesday’s 4-3 win. “It’s tough to lose sleep over. I think everything in life goes a little bit better when you’re playing well and your team’s doing well.”
Eichel, 20, has already endured what he called a “kind of awkward first half of the year.” After playing in the World Cup of Hockey in September, he suffered a high left ankle sprain Oct. 12. He missed the first 21 games, finally returning Nov. 29.
He roared out of the gate, compiling three goals and four points in his first two games. But he only mustered two goals and four points in the next 10 outings, going pointless eight times.
Going home in the midst of one of the weakest stretches of his career allowed Eichel “to hit the reset button,” he said.
“You get around people who know you really well and knew you before you became a professional hockey player, it’s a bit refreshing,” he said.
Eichel looked refreshed Tuesday in Detroit. His goal, the 30th of his 94-game career, will likely become a highlight-reel staple.
After carrying the puck into the zone from center ice, he scorched former Sabres star Thomas Vanek in the left circle, cut to the net on his backhand and switched to his forehand before roofing a shot in.
“It felt good,” Eichel said. “I felt like I had played decently well in a couple games before that, with the exception of the Islanders game (Friday, a 5-1 loss). … I was doing some good things. I was getting opportunities. I just wasn’t cashing in.”
Thanks to a long Christmas break, Eichel went on a tear as a rookie a year ago, starting with a two-goal, four-point effort Dec. 26, 2015 in Boston, his first NHL appearance in his hometown. He finished with 13 goals and 40 points in his final 48 games.
The Sabres trail the third-place Bruins by six points for the Atlantic Division’s final playoff spot. The teams also meet again Saturday afternoon in Boston.
“They’re within earshot,” Bylsma said. “You have a chance of sweeping these two games and gaining four points on them, putting yourself right near them.”
Eichel will almost certainly need to produce a dynamic second half if the Sabres have any hopes of catching their longtime rival. That task could be arduous for Eichel over the next two or three weeks.
With top center Ryan O’Reilly sidelined after undergoing an appendectomy over the weekend, teams can key on Eichel and put their top checkers on him.
“It accents the match-ups (Eichel) gets in the game,” Bylsma said of O’Reilly’s absence. “We saw it last year.”
Last winter, opponents focused on Eichel when a broken foot shelved O’Reilly 11 games. Early on, Eichel struggled against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar and Joe Thornton, some of the Western Conference’s heaviest centers.
Eichel then had five goals and seven points in the final six games of O’Reilly’s absence.
“It was a good test for me,” Eichel said. “I think more than anything you just need to bring it on a shift-to-shift basis similar to (Tuesday) night playing against Henrik Zetterberg.
“You got to be on your toes every shift and ready to compete in all three zones. I think your work away from the puck has to become a lot better. It’s something I have to keep working at.”