By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There were less than 13 minutes to play in Tuesday’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and Vegas Golden Knights at KeyBank Arena. The teams were tied, 2-2, and if anything the Knights had the better of the play. Still, all it would take is for someone to make one play to change the course of the game.
Jack Eichel made it.
The Sabres’ center took off on a two-on-one break with Zemgus Girgensons, with Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore in between. What would Eichel do? Theodore and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had little time to figure it out.
Eichel came in on the left side, made a dandy little move to get behind Theodore. Would he cut across the crease in the hopes that Fleury would open his legs to open up the five hole? No, the center had other plans.
“I had Z coming with me after he made a nice play on the wall,” Eichel said. “Theodore tried to step up and I just tried to get it around him. I saw Fleury cheating a little bit on the pass. … I just tried to put it in the short side.”
That’s exactly what happened. It was goal number 28 for Eichel, tying a career-high – even though we aren’t even at the All-Star break
“It was definitely that the genius that he has in him came out on that goal,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “I thought it’s the leader that we have in Jack and the player that we have in Jack. It all came through in that moment of brilliance.”
The Sabres took care of business for the rest of the night, and took their second straight win – a 4-2 triumph over the Knights. And maybe it never happens without having that sort of talented player on the roster.
“He’s a star, and he’s able to do some special things that other people can’t,” Kyle Okposo said. “There are few people on the planet that can play hockey the way he does. He’s been huge for us all year. He cares so much and he wants to win so badly for this team and this city. We’re lucky to have him, and he’s only going to get better.”
On the road again
The Sabres caught a Vegas team in the midst of an odd point in the schedule. The Knights had just come off seven straight games at home, winning the first four and then dropped the final three. The appearance in Buffalo was the first of eight straight road games for Vegas, with the All-Star Game and accompanying break coming in the midst of that.
The Knights don’t have a ton of firepower, but they have the type of team that travels well – team defense, timing scoring, and a Hall of Fame goalie.
“He’s been good over the years,” Okposo said about Marc-Andre Fleury. “He’s a competitor. He’s a great person, and he has been a great goalie for a long time. He’s a guy that’s been a star. Any time you can get a win against him, it’s a great one.”
This wasn’t a matchup featuring “firewagon hockey.” The Sabres had the edge in the first period, piling up most of the shots but finished 20 minutes in a 0-0 tie. Buffalo didn’t do much in the second period, but figured out a way to get a couple of power-play goals to take a 2-1 lead.
“I think we did a good job on the cycle,” Eichel said about the early part of the game. “We played a lot in their end, protected pucks well, and our D was pretty active. When we do things like that we’re a pretty good hockey team. I think in the second we got away from that. We didn’t spend as much time down there as we wanted. It kind of stalled our game. It all starts with our forecheck.”
Okposo’s goal came off a turnover on the Vegas blue line started by Buffalo’s Conor Sheary. Sam Reinhart scored on a short pass from around the crease from Rasmus Ristolainen.
“When it’s not going well, you need a lot of shots,” Okposo said about the power play. “That opens up everything. We’re going to keep at it.”
Up for grabs
Reilly Smith tied the game for Vegas early in the third period on the power play. As the seconds melted away, it started to seem like the type of game that the Sabres would have lost in seasons past. This year and this time, though, Eichel was able to come to the rescue of his team.
If nothing else, this year’s team has found a way to get over very disappointing outcomes as of late. Buffalo dropped stunning contests to Tampa Bay and Vancouver in the last couple of weeks, and answered each time. That’s progress.
“I think the group responds to Ralph so well and the message he delivers,” Eichel said. “We got away from our identity a little bit and we didn’t do the things that made us successful. Ralph is able to hold the group so well and get us to play the game that we know we need to play to win. It starts around our net, and protecting the house around our goalie. He’s been so good at getting us back and getting us on the same page. He hits the reset button, and doesn’t carry things over. He brings an attitude to the rink every day, and it flows through the players.”
The Sabres have left the building for two weeks. They will play in Dallas on Thursday and in Nashville on Saturday. Buffalo won’t be home until Jan. 28, when they play the first of five straight home games (and nine of 10!) against Ottawa.