At this point, saying that the Buffalo Sabres and Jack Eichel have a quiet relationship would be a major understatement. The former Sabres captain returned to Buffalo for a second time on Thursday (Nov. 10) and the first since his raucous homecoming this past March, in which he was booed substantially.
It was once again a wild and boisterous affair filled with all kinds of noise, but it didn’t end with Sabres fans roaring with joy. In fact, it was practically an exact role reversal and this time around it was Eichel who was smiling at the end.
The First Return: Boos in Buffalo
After Eichel was traded to the Golden Knights on Nov. 4, 2021, in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and a first-round draft selection in 2022, Sabres fans immediately circled March 10, 2022, on their calendars. The Golden Knights would be in Buffalo that day, and as it turned out, Eichel was in the lineup after recovering from his neck surgery ahead of schedule. It was expected that the former face of the Sabres’ franchise would get a mixed to negative reception due to the controversial circumstances of his departure, but it proved to not be very mixed at all.
Whether it was during pregame introductions, the tribute video during a TV timeout in the first period or any time he stepped on the ice, the crowd at KeyBank Center rained down the boos every time Eichel came into the spotlight. And to add even further insult, the game didn’t go his way. The Sabres took it to the injury-riddled Golden Knights and won the contest 3-1. The pieces Buffalo received in the trade shined while Eichel was held pointless.
The moment that gave Sabres fans the most satisfaction was in the final minute when, with the Golden Knights’ goaltender pulled, Eichel misplayed the puck and allowed Tuch to steal it away and score the empty netter to seal the deal as the floor of the arena shook. The Sabres already had the record for the NHL’s longest postseason drought secured at the time, but based on the reaction of those in attendance, one would have thought the team had just won the Stanley Cup. Things got even more colorful after the contest when Eichel fired back at his former fans in his postgame interview.
“It was about the loudest I’ve heard this place ever,” he said to the media scrum. “It only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into the game.”
The comments went over about as well as one could imagine and social media exploded in the aftermath. The Sabres had won the first round against the former face of their franchise and the fans had clearly gotten into his head. The Golden Knights were unable to overcome their sizeable injured list and ended up missing the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s history, furthering the joy of Sabres fans, who declared themselves the victors of the blockbuster trade.
The Second Return: Eichel’s Revenge
Fans and media alike were probably wondering how Eichel’s second return to Western New York could possibly measure up to the first, but it did. Just not in the way Sabres fans were hoping for.
Anyone who wondered how much the injuries hurt the Golden Knights last season need only look at their start to 2022-23. New head coach Bruce Cassidy’s team exploded out of the gate and sat at 12-2-0 entering their Nov. 11 matchup. The Golden Knights of old are back, and apparently so is Eichel. The newly-minted 26-year-old has rediscovered himself after spending last season recovering on the go and he has recorded 15 points in his first 14 games.
Unlike in March when the Golden Knights were reeling and Eichel wasn’t at full strength, the deck was much more evenly stacked this time around and the pieces were in place for a memorable contest. Fans in attendance clearly weren’t worried, however. They had taken him out of the game the last time and could easily do it again, right?
At first, that’s exactly how it looked. He intercepted a pass and skated into the Sabres zone on a breakaway but was stuffed by goaltender Eric Comrie to the delight of the crowd. That was a good as it would get for the home team, however.
After the first period ended in a 1-1 tie, the Golden Knights opened it up in the second and took a 3-2 lead. Unfortunately for the Sabres, No. 9 for the visitors then entered the proceedings. After assisting on a goal to make it 4-2 in the third, Buffalo’s favorite son silenced the arena by recording his third career hat trick and first with Vegas, who cruised to an easy 7-4 victory.
It was a far bigger blowout than the score reflected and the spectators who were hoping to see Eichel defeated again could only sit and watch helplessly as he celebrated after each tally. It was one of the most shocking and impressive revenge performances in NHL history and a slap in the face to Sabres fans, who definitely didn’t seem to enjoy the humble pie they had been served. Round 2 goes to Eichel in a knockout.
Sabres Get A Reality Check
It certainly looks as if Eichel has rediscovered himself and he appears determined to make up for lost time. After being slowed for the majority of the past two years, the Boston native is tearing it up once again. It’s been a welcome sight for the Golden Knights, who look like the best team in the game at this point.
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Hopefully for Sabres fans, getting embarrassed by their most hated villain will help them realize it’s time to drop it. Eichel has been living in their heads rent-free and the Sabres need to focus on themselves going forward, especially since the loss was their fourth in a row after starting the season 7-3. They have numerous issues that need to be addressed and, for their own sake, that had better happen before the wheels officially come off the wagon.
It’s weird to think of a team having a rivalry with one player, but that’s pretty much been the case here. The fireworks will likely continue to fly whenever the two meet, but after the show he put on on Thursday, Eichel showed Buffalo that they haven’t won any trade just yet.
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