Something inside of KeyBank Center was different Thursday night. Even if you weren’t in the building, the energy was palpable through a TV screen. Whether it be the two second-period fights or the overall chippy-ness and edge, that game clearly meant more than a typical regular-season game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Buffalo Sabres. Ultimately culminating in a 3-1 win for the Sabres, there was something distinct about this game that provided closure to a tumultuous saga.
Jack Eichel’s return was a national talking point, and it brought with it a plethora of opinions on his tenure in Buffalo. Every Sabres fan has their own assessment of the Eichel saga and how things soured between the organization and the player.
Some saw Eichel as the savior. Once upon a time, the city of Buffalo placed its hopes on an 18-year-old kid out of Boston College, hoping he would lift them out of what has been a miserable run that has lasted what feels like a lifetime. Others saw him as a player who couldn’t live up to his potential here. Fueled by the countless years of bottom-feeding, zero playoff series, and failure by the team to meet any level of fan expectations. The city of Buffalo has always had a complicated relationship with Eichel, with opinions seemingly split on every facet of his tenure here.
An Organizational Turning Point
While it surely has been a long road for Sabres fans, the organization has given fans reasons for optimism this season. The emergence of Tage Thompson has been nothing short of spectacular. Alex Tuch has embraced Buffalo, and the city has embraced him back. Jeff Skinner looks to have found his game, Rasmus Dahlin has taken a big step, and Peyton Krebs, JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn have all shown signs they could be ready for the NHL next season. Not to mention the feel-good story of Craig Anderson, who reached his 300th career win Thursday night, and last year’s first overall pick Owen Power, who has yet to play a game for the Sabres.
Thursday night felt almost… poetic. Krebs opened the scoring, and Tuch stole the puck from Eichel to seal the game with an empty-netter. It couldn’t have been written any better.
Could this game prove to be a spark for the Buffalo Sabres organization? Buffalo, when at its best, has something to rally behind. Eichel’s comments after the game on Thursday might provide the perfect rallying point for fans. The direction of the team seems to be at the best it’s been in years under general manager Kevyn Adams, and fans finally have a reason to be excited with the players mentioned. This game could reunite the fan base, providing a reason for them to return to KeyBank Center if only to prove Eichel’s postgame comments wrong.
And on the flip side, could this have been the best situation for Eichel anyways? The Eichel trade could be one of the rare trades that both teams “won.” Declaring winners and losers has been an ongoing phenomenon in the NHL, and sure, there are situations where a trade ends up drastically benefiting one side, but not always.
The Trade’s Impact on the Sabres & Golden Knights
Since entering the league, the Golden Knights have lacked a true number one center, which is the main reason they acquired Eichel in the first place. This trade was a massive win for them. They had to give up a quality package, but they got back a franchise player.
For Eichel, the biggest win likely came when he was able to get the surgery he wanted. This was one of the main disagreements between Eichel and the Sabres, and ultimately the trade allowed him to opt for the surgery he wanted. Eichel also got to join a team that is already in playoff contention, something he didn’t get to experience in Buffalo.
Finally, the Sabres. Perhaps the biggest win of the deal thus far is the impact Tuch has had on this team already. Sure the win/loss record is not there, and it may not be for a while, but things feel different in Buffalo. Whether it be naming some of the Sabres greats from the 2007-08 team, telling stories of being Tim Connolly’s neighbor, or even something as simple as crashing Thompson’s post-game interview, Tuchs’ legitimate love for Buffalo, and this team, is abundantly clear. As much of an impact as he’s had off the ice, he has had an equal, if not greater impact on it. Tuch has 24 points in 27 games this season, and his line with Thompson and Skinner has been one of the hottest in the league since his debut.
Krebs’ talent has also been on display. Though he started in Rochester, it did not take long for him to carve out his role on this team. While posting what seems like an insignificant 12 points in 34 games as a rookie, he has shown promise with his passing ability and hockey IQ.
For Sabres fans, this trade should provide a comparable experience to the 2015 offseason — hope. Adams has praised since day one that he wants players who want to be here, and that vision is starting to manifest itself. There is still a long road ahead, but there is something different with these Sabres.
More than anything else, this game, and this trade, should provide a fresh start for all involved. The game and the moment were probably not how Eichel imagined it, but he can now move on and focus on rebuilding his game in a new city. Buffalo Sabres fans got some sense of closure Thursday night, with one era coming to an end and a new one being ushered in.