Photo by Bill Wippert
The red-hot Vegas Golden Knights (12-2-0) are taking their annual trip to Western New York tonight to play the Buffalo Sabres (7-6-0). The Sabres come into this matchup on the tail end of losing three straight, dropping games to the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Arizona Coyotes, respectively. While the team hasn’t played poorly in any of the games, the Sabres need to start finding ways to earn points from matchups against both playoff and bottom-feeder teams if the fanbase wants to have visions of spring hockey for the first time in eleven years. As for Vegas, the Pacific Division team has won eight straight and is firing on all cylinders to begin this season.
But all of that is secondary in this matchup.
The storyline at center stage is the return of former Buffalo Sabre Jack Eichel. It’s unlikely anyone needs reminding, but the breakup between the Sabres and their face-of-the-franchise captain was drawn-out and messy. Eichel had made it clear he wanted out before the 2020/21 season, but the Sabres ran it back, hoping they could convince the star to stay. Of course, this wasn’t the case, as Eichel battled injuries all year before finally being shut down due to a herniated disc in his neck.
Then it got ugly. Eichel wanted to undergo an Artificial Disk Replacement (ADR), a new treatment type, while the Sabres wanted him to get fusion surgery. This saga played out over the 2021 summer before Buffalo traded Eichel on November 4th, 2021 to the Las Vegas Golden Knights for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, and a couple of draft picks. The Sabres have to be thrilled with their return on Tuch, as he has fit right in with the community as an intriguing young piece for Buffalo now and in the future. The two draft picks, one having already turned into Noah Ostlund, will further add depth to their farm system.
For Vegas, they received what they had been desperately searching for: an elite center that can take control of a game. Eichel comes into tonight’s matchup riding a six game point streak and seems to be back to his 2019/20 form, one that finished in the top ten of Hart voting.
When Eichel made his return in March of last spring, Sabres fans made it known that they were not pleased with him and booed every time he touched the puck. The Sabres went on to win 3-1 and afterward, Eichel cemented himself as a hockey villain to Sabres fans in his postgame interview.
While Eichel was obviously caught at an emotional time, his accusations to Sabres fans will do him no favors this time around. Since then Eichel has tried to walk back his comments, but they won’t be forgotten. You can’t call out a fanbase as passionate as Buffalo and come out unscathed. To say that the fans didn’t care is completely false, as the arena was close to full for his first practice. Eichel represented hope for a city that needed it. He gave his best effort, but both he and the team failed because of poor decisions from the front office. But none of that matters now. For better or worse, every single time he comes and plays in the KeyBank Center, he will be met by a chorus of boos.
Walking out of the arena after last year’s game, I figured that would be the end of it. The fans got their boos in and both parties could move on. Obviously, that can’t be the case now, and never will be. Eichel is a villain for Buffalo fans, and he always will be. That isn’t a bad thing. Rivals make sports fun and the Sabres have lacked a serious rivalry since 2011 when Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic ran Ryan Miller. Even that was short-lived, as the Sabres blew their team up shortly after that.
Being a Sabres fan hasn’t been easy for the past decade. When Tim Murray went up to the stage and announced that the Sabres drafted Eichel the suffering was supposed to end. The Sabres, however, continued to play poorly for years to come. When Eichel was traded away, he became the scapegoat for those six years of poor play. That pent-up anger was directed at Eichel his first time coming back and will be worse for him the second time around. Jack Eichel made this bed for himself, and now he has to sleep in it.