BUFFALO – In his four-year NHL career, center Jack Eichel has never consistently earned more ice time than in the past three weeks. The Sabres’ most meaningful games in seven seasons have prominently featured their captain.
Other than Saturday afternoon’s 3-1 win, a game the Sabres controlled, allowing Phil Housley to rest Eichel a bit for Sunday’s game, the coach has utilized his leading scorer a lot. Eichel has skated at least 20 minutes, 57 seconds in the other eight outings since Jan. 16.
Entering Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders inside KeyBank Center, Eichel has averaged 22 minutes, 4 seconds over that nine-game span.
“He was a force out there when he had the puck,” Housley said following Sunday afternoon’s 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. “I like when he comes down and starts thinking shot instead of passing it.”
Eichel, 22, scored the Sabres’ lone goal, extending his point streak to five contests. Since enduring a season-long five-game point drought from Dec. 31 to Jan. 14 – an upper-body injury sidelined him three games in that stretch – Eichel has compiled four goals and 12 points in 10 contests, only going pointless once.
Having scored 18 goals and 59 points through 52 games, Eichel is on pace for 27 goals and 90 points this season. He would be the first Sabre to crack 90 points since Daniel Briere enjoyed a 95-point campaign in 2006-07.
“(Eichel) is maturing as a leader and as a “go-to guy” every night,” said one NHL scout who has watched Eichel regularly this season.
While Eichel was on the ice for Blake Wheeler’s winning goal, it’s hard to pin it on him. The Jets kept cycling the puck before Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin lost his man in front.
Housley, of course, wouldn’t be able to rely on Eichel so heavily if the 2015 second overall pick hadn’t developed the defensive side of his game.
“(His) play away from the puck has improved,” the scout said. “(He) needs to play as hard without puck as he does with it on a consistent basis. But he has taken strides in this area.”
He added: “He is an elite offensive player who could grow into an excellent two-way center without sacrificing his offense because of his skating ability and hockey IQ.”
Sabres goalie Carter Hutton enjoyed a nice bounce-back outing against the Jets, making 26 saves.
Most importantly, Hutton, who has lost playing time to Linus Ullmark over the last month, looked more composed than in other recent outings.
“He’s maybe attacking it too much, really trying to get out on his angle instead of trying to letting the puck hit him like they were,” Housley said prior to Sunday’s contest, Hutton’s first appearance since getting yanked from a 7-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 1. “When he’s on his game, there’s not a lot of rebounds, he squeezes up everything.”
The Islanders beat the Minnesota Wild 2-1 on Sunday afternoon, their third straight win and ninth in the last 12 contests. Since starting the season 3-4-1, they’ve gone 30-12-1, roaring into first place in the Metropolitan Division.
After years of mediocrity, the Islanders have quickly morphed into a powerhouse under coach Barry Trotz, who left the Washington Capitals after winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Former Sabre Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have been the Islanders’ backbone, forming a dynamic goaltending tandem.
Lehner, 27, has become one of the NHL’s best goalies, going 17-8-4 with a 2.05 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and three shutouts in 30 appearances.
Lehner leads the league in goals-against average and save percentage.
Greiss, meanwhile, has compiled similar numbers – 16-8-2, 2.28, .927 and three shutouts – in 29 games.
The Sabres had Monday off.