Its been a long season for the Buffalo Sabres. Not the type of year that was expected after some changeover within the organization.
When Jack Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain in the first period against the Boston Bruins last weekend, it was the cherry on top of the disappointment cake.
It felt like the final blow for a fan base that has suffered through another season of bad hockey and falling well short of expectations. Eichel was one of the top reasons some fans continued to tune in and watch the Sabres.
With the 21-year old star missing the rest of the regular season or at the very least the majority of it. Most fans were prepared to check out and spend their time elsewhere.
Based on what we’ve seen for 50 games this season, in a surprising twist, the club is playing good hockey without their top player. The players have rallied around the injury situation and are seizing the opportunity.
“We rallied around this, we obviously know that Jack is a big part of this team, but I really liked the guys what they’ve done in the games that we’ve played without him, a lot of players have really stepped up,” said Phil Housley after the Sabres win on Tuesday night.
The team has won two of three if you include the Boston game without Eichel. They’ve scored at least four goals in all of those games. Scoring was an area that was expected to dip without their top offensive player.
If you remember in November of 2016, without Eichel they only scored more than one goal five times in 13 games and more than two goals once over that same stretch.
The biggest contribution so far has come the new top center in Eichel’s absence Ryan O’Reilly. He’s seen a bump in his time over the last two games, averaging 25 minutes. The 27-year-old has dominated in the face-off dot and been a force offensively by picking up three points in each of the last two games.
After the Sabres victory over the Lightning Tuesday Housley said about O’Reilly, “the thing I like about his game he’s really stepped up since Jack’s been out and really contributed in all ways. Not only on the scoreboard but his own zone as well.”
In the locker room after the game, O’Reilly himself acknowledged how the players realize the situation right now. “We know we have to step up, we’re missing our best player and most dangerous player, we all have to contribute a bit more,” he said.
O’Reilly hasn’t been the only one who has stepped up. Eichel’s roommate Sam Reinhart has continued to be productive. He’s been much different player than we saw in the first half of the season. Since January 1, Reinhart has 16 points in 16 games.
He’s found some chemistry with O’Reilly and Benoit Pouliot over the last two contests. He’s also been the leading force to the rejuvenated power play unit.
“It’s gotta be the same mentality five on five as it is with the power play without him it’s not going to be one guy that’s gonna step up,” said Reinhart after Tuesday’s game.
The 2014 second overall pick is making those plays again that show why he is a special talent. He’s playing a quicker game and being rewarded for it on the score sheet.
Eichel’s college teammate at Boston University Evan Rodrigues has stepped into the role that has been vacated. He’s now the second line center on the roster and has handled the responsibility well so far.
The 24-year-old has also taken Eichel’s spot on the power play. His creativity has lessened the blow of losing the player that power play usually runs through in Eichel.
“Evan’s a great player, you can see out there he has great skill too,” said O’Reilly when he was asked about Rodrigues making a seamless transition into the top power-play unit.
Other players like Benoit Pouliot, Scott Wilson and Casey Nelson have elevated their game as of late. We’ll see if the Sabres can maintain the trend over the next 25 games, but they’re off to a good start.