After his first professional morning skate back at TD Garden on Saturday, Buffalo Sabres rookie Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and a Chelmsford, Mass., native, recalled that he attended his first Bruins game when he was 4 years old.
Mats Sundin broke Bruins fans hearts that night with an overtime goal, Eichel recalled.
Eight months after the disappointing of losing the NCAA championship game on Garden ice with Boston University, Eichel played the villain Saturday with two goals and two assists in a 6-3 comeback win against the Bruins. Eichel scored two of Buffalo’s five third-period goals, which were all scored after the Bruins grabbed a 3-1 lead.
“Yeah you go down two goals in the third period, they’re a real good team and they protect their leads well,” Eichel said. “So it’s a huge goal by us by [Ryan O’Reilly] then we’re able to get another one and tie it up and then Jamie [McGinn] gets a huge goal on the forecheck and that’s something that we’ve worked a lot on. So it’s nice to see it pay off. And it’s nice to see us be able to get over that hump and that’s what good teams do so that’s what we’re going to do down the stretch.”
Eichel’s first goal tied the score 3-3 with 11:00 elapsed in the third period, 39 seconds after O’Reilly’s first of two goals started the comeback. Eichel added an empty-net goal with 1:18 remaining.
Although the Sabres might’ve played in the third period like a team that might challenge for a playoff spot, they haven’t done much of that this season. Their recent 4-1-1 stretch has improved their record to 15-16-4.
The Bruins, on the other hand, had been playing like a playoff team up until they took their 3-1 lead on the Sabres. Even when they had their three-game winning streak ended by St. Louis just before the Christmas break, the Bruins were playing playoff-caliber hockey with tight defense and timely scoring.
So Eichel got to learn a couple lessons. Even if the Sabres comeback doesn’t propel Buffalo to the postseason this year, he learned that a team should never give up in the NHL. And on the other side he learned what happens when a team takes its foot off the gas regardless of the size of its lead in the NHL.
Boston showed Eichel just what a collapse looks like.
“I think it’s definitely, hopefully, an eye-opener for a lot of guys that we’re not even close to being where we want to be and we’ve got to be a lot better,” Bruins alternate captain Patrice Bergeron said. “And, you know, we’ve got to be consistent and by doing that it’s about being professional and playing for 60 minutes.”
David Krejci gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead with 6:59 gone in the third period. One icing, one faceoff lost and a fortunate bounce of a Mike Weber shot off the end wall to O’Reilly and the bottom fell out on Boston’s fine play.
“I think we didn’t respect the game plan and we just kind of sat back,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “We didn’t play on our toes, didn’t play physical, didn’t continue to go at them. And then a couple mistakes ended up in a goal and they got the momentum and they just kind of rolled from there. So these are things that we have to be better at. There are huge points; we could’ve jumped ahead to first tonight, I think. That would’ve been nice.”
In fact the Bruins could have passed Montreal for first place in the Atlantic. Instead the Detroit Red Wings took over the top spot by virtue of points per game with their win and the Canadiens’ loss. The Bruins, instead, were dealt a reality check. Their 11-1-3 run before they lost to the Blues proved the Bruins are capable of a high level of hockey that might be unrealistic for a team with their deficiencies to maintain even that long again. Nonetheless, they were 13 minutes from another victory and the mistakes they made should be correctable.
Like the Bruins, the Sabres had a lot of new faces this season. But the Sabres had a lot farther to climb after being bad enough last season to earn the No. 2 pick and nab Eichel. Their coming-of-age win might turn out to be a rare highlight in another lottery-bound season. But the victory at least provided Eichel with experience and some confidence after he went seven games without a goal.
The Bruins, though, better learn from their defeat faster because in the bunched-up Eastern Conference a couple more losses could dig them a hole. And unlike the Sabres, the Bruins aren’t supposed to be in the lottery come April.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.