BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Long after the chorus of boos subsided in a Sabres arena Jack Eichel spent six seasons calling home, the smiling Golden Knights forward emerged from the Zamboni entrance and headed into the stands, where he was greeted by cheers and hugs.
There waiting for him in one corner of the rink was a small crowd of family and friends to congratulate Eichel on his three-goal and one assist outing in a 7-4 win over his former team on Thursday night. Dressed in a suit, he gave a long embrace to his girlfriend, who is from Buffalo, before getting a bear hug from his father.
Evidently, not everyone in the building was against Eichel on a night he was jeered every time he touched the puck, and cheered when he was twice stopped by Eric Comrie on breakaway attempts.
“Yeah, I just tried to enjoy it, the whole experience,” Eichel said. “It is satisfying. It’s satisfying to come in here and win. And I think that was the most important thing for our group tonight.”
And especially for Eichel.
Once considered the Sabres' savior, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft eventually became the symbol of the team’s dysfunction for failing to qualify for the playoffs. His time in Buffalo ended following a nasty public squabble over how to how to treat a neck injury, which led to Eichel finally getting his preferred disk replacement surgery after being traded to Vegas 53 weeks ago.
Whatever emotional hurt and disappointment the Sabres' former captain said he felt following the icy reception he got from fans following his first visit to Buffalo in March — similar to what he got on Thursday — had all but dissipated.
This time, Eichel gave back as much as he got by scoring all three goals in the third period to not only silence the crowd, but send many to the exits before the game was over and secure the Golden Knights their ninth consecutive win.
“You guys were here. They were on me all night,” Eichel said. “Yeah, it felt good to get one.”
The first hint of a smile came when Eichel assisted on Alex Pietrangelo’s goal 3:52 into the third period. He was mobbed by teammates, including captain Mark Stone, who playfully punched Eichel in the shoulder.
Less than three minutes later, Eichel put Vegas up 5-2 and mugged to the unhappy crowd. He pounded his chest along the boards after scoring his second goal with 5:23 remaining and closed the night by scoring into an empty net.
“Just trying to take advantage of it when you can,” Eichel said in capping his three-goal outing to extend his point streak to seven games and up his team-leading total to 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists). “ Obviously, (Comrie) had my number a couple of times on the breakaways so sometimes it’s easier to score if he’s not in the net.”
Eichel’s reaction on Thursday night was far different from the one in March. Following the 3-1 loss, Eichel noted how it was the loudest he’d ever heard a hockey crowd in Buffalo — before sarcastically suggesting it took his departure for fans to get into the game.
“I don’t know why. I probably shouldn’t have been last year, but I was maybe a little surprised by the reception,” Eichel said, earlier in the day. “I’m just like anyone else. I’m a human being. It was emotional for me like it probably was for them.
“Maybe I was a little bit hurt.”
Stone could only imagine what Eichel was going through a second time around, which is why he was so overjoyed following his teammate’s assist.
“It says a lot about his character. I know people here think he doesn’t have character but, my God, we’ve seen what Jack really is and he’s carrying a big load for us,” said Stone. “For him to be able to do that tonight, I know it’s special for him. I’m almost getting emotional just being a part of it.”
Eichel could even laugh off his missed breakaway chances by joking he was giving the crowd what it wanted.
“But, hey, give (Comrie) credit, he made a couple of really nice saves,” Eichel said. “Just got to work on my breakaways I guess.”
AP freelance writer Joe Yerdon contributed to this report.
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press