BUFFALO – Two years ago, the NHL revamped its traditional All-Star Game, transforming the stale affair into a slick three-on-three tournament featuring six divisional squads.
The league also added a $1 million incentive for the winning team, a prize center Jack Eichel, the Sabres’ lone All-Star, said “brings a little more energy to the event.”
“You got something on the line, you got something to play for,” Eichel said prior to Thursday’s 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “I mean, it’s money, right? I think I read somewhere yesterday that Taylor Hall’s won both years in the three-on-three. I think he’s got paid over $150,000 from winning. That’s a pretty good chunk of money.
“Just watching it the past few years, it seems like the guys really enjoy the three-on-three.”
The money intrigues Eichel, who signed an eight-year, $80 million extension before the season. Still, the youngster said playing in his first game Jan. 28 in Tampa is “going to be a huge honor.”
“Something that you grow up watching and just some of the people that are going to be there, names and players I grew up watching and idolizing,” said Eichel, whose spot on the Atlantic Division’s team was announced Wednesday.
Of course, the game is just one part of the NHL All-Star experience. Eichel, 21, is one of the league’s slickest players. He should thrive in the skills competition Jan. 27.
Eichel said he’s open to participating in any event. He could be a candidate for the fastest skater competition.
“I was always a fan of (the skills competition),” he said. “It was always cool to see these guys. A lot of these guys playing in the All-Star Game I used to watch as a kid, so it’ll be pretty cool to play with them.”
Eichel wouldn’t have earned a spot if he didn’t bust out of a slump a month ago. After recording his first hat trick Dec. 15, he scored nine times in 11 games, tying him with Boston’s Patrice Bergeron for the most goals in that span. Eichel’s 15 points were tied for fourth.
What has changed in the last few weeks?
“I don’t know if it’s anything serious,” Eichel said. “I think early in the year maybe I wasn’t getting breaks or finishing my shots, capitalizing on my opportunities. Statistically, it wasn’t showing.”
Eichel said he has recently been trying to disrupt and forecheck more.
“Maybe these last few games it’s been a little bit more simple for me,” he said. “(I’m) just trying to get pucks to the net, use my speed and my body to create chances, and maybe earlier in the year I was (fine-tuning) and trying to make the perfect play.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley said defenseman Zach Bogosian, who left Wednesday’s practice after his left leg got tangled with winger Evander Kane, is out four to six weeks.
Bogosian can’t catch a break. A lower-body injury sidelined the Massena native the first 25 games this season.
“It’s a tough blow for him, too,” Housley said inside KeyBank Center. “He’s been fighting through injuries this year. It’s difficult.”
Defenseman Justin Falk moved in for Bogosian, who has one assist in 18 games this season.
To replace center Jacob Josefson (lower body), winger Benoit Pouliot, a healthy scratch two times in three games, returned. Pouliot played at left wing beside Eichel and Kyle Okposo.
“I don’t think I have been playing the way I should be playing,” said Pouliot, perhaps the Sabres’ biggest early-season surprise. “In the beginning of the year, I thought I was skating, forechecking, creating chances or turning pucks over. The past few games haven’t been this way for me. That’s all on me.”
Pouliot scored 11:41 into the game, his ninth goal.
Former Rochester Americans goalie David Leggio, a Williamsville native, has been named to Team USA’s Olympic roster for the Pyeongchang Games next month.
Leggio, 33, currently plays for Munich EHC in the German DEL. USA Hockey announced the final roster spots Thursday.
In other Olympic news, Team Canada named former Sabres center Derek Roy and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani to its roster Thursday. Both currently play in the KHL.