By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
On the list of hockey clichés in terms of usage, “the best players have to be the best players” doesn’t rank anywhere near such gems as “we have to play them one at a time” and “we have to work harder.”
Still, there usually is a kernel of truth in such cases, and the Sabres demonstrated that on Wednesday night.
Jack Eichel, who is supposed to be the Sabres’ best player, certainly was the dominating factor in a 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens before 15,383 at the KeyBank Center. Eichel had two goals and two assists for four points.
“What he did was not surprising,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “I’m been watching him since the 13th of September. He’s one of the game’s elite players, and his game is not even complete yet.”
Eichel’s second goal of the night was one of the best in his young career. He carried the puck from behind his own net up the middle, leaving a Montreal defender grabbing at air. Eichel kept going until the slot in the Canadiens’ zone, freezing the opposing players and giving him time to fire the puck into the net. Maybe Gil Perreault, a man who knows something about such goals, gave Eichel a few tips during his Saturday visit to Buffalo.
“He really took over the game,” winger Victor Olofsson said.
Ups and downs
Eichel’s play was the main highlight of a back-and-forth contest that had plenty of excitement in a sloppy way. The teams traded bursts through the 61+ minutes, which sometimes happens in October.
“We had spurts in different parts of the game where we were really good,” Eichel said. “There were times when we played in their end and we were hard to play against. But at times we were a little careless with the puck. It starts with me. I had a turnover in the third and they got one. We have to clean it up a little bit and continue to get better. But we were able to find a way to get two points, and that’s the important thing.”
This one started well enough for the Sabres, as Olofsson scores his now traditional power-play goal in the first few minutes. His first six career goals have come with the man-advantage, and that ties an NHL record that must have required some serious research. Olofsson hit the post from the right side moments before the goal. He aimed for the same spot the second time around.
“It was a great pass from Jack,” Olofsson said. “I don’t think the goalie (Keith Kinkaid) got over in time.”
The Joel Armia Show got in the way for a while after that, as the ex-Sabre draft choice scored a short-handed goal and a power-play goal in the final six minutes of the first period to give Montreal the lead. But Buffalo responded with Eichel’s two goals. When Jeff Skinner struck in the early going of the third period to make it 4-2, it looks like the Sabres could cost home.
The Canadiens answered with “not so fast.”
“I have to compliment the way Montreal plays,” Krueger said. “They battle hard. They have a high level of offensive skill.”
Last shot wins
The Canadiens tied the game on a goal by Ben Chairot with 7:06 left in regulation, as Montreal certainly earned its point in the standings. Both teams had some chances from there, but couldn’t convert in regulation time. That sent it to overtime, but the Sabres had the advantage because of a minute and 26 seconds over power-play time left over from the third period.
They needed all of that time plus a few more seconds, but Colin Miller’s excellent pass found Marcus Johansson alone with plenty of vacated net in front of him. Ballgame.
“He’s been on the second line at the center position here after multiple years on the wing,” Krueger said about Johansson. “He’s embraced that. He took one huge draw near the end of the game. He’s started to get comfortable there.”
“We want to lock down the game,” goalie Carter Hutton said. “It was scrambly. But we bagged a big two points against a divisional opponent. Sometimes you have to find a way. It’s not always as pretty as you want.”
Even so, a 3-0-1 record through four games looks attractive to the Sabres right now. Buffalo will try to add to the point total Friday night against Florida.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)