When the Buffalo Sabres started slowly, some of it could be attributed to playing without Jack Eichel. The Sabres were 7-9-5 without the budding superstar but went 5-2-1 in his first eight games back from a leg injury and suddenly there was optimism about the season.
But as the Sabres come to New York to face the Rangers on Tuesday night, a 1-4-2 stretch has Eichel looking for answers.
"At the end of the day, it's about one thing and one thing only, and that's winning hockey games," Eichel told The Buffalo News. "However that needs to happen, it needs to happen.
"I don't think we've hit the halfway point yet. I'm sure not giving up on this, and I don't think anyone else is. Have we frittered away some good opportunities for ourselves to put ourselves in a good position? Yes, but there's still a lot of hockey to be played."
It starts with a tough road game against the Rangers, who have won three straight since the holiday break despite playing without Rick Nash in all three games and starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in two games. Nash could return against the Sabres, but if he doesn't, he should be back soon along with Mika Zibanejad, who has been out since Nov. 20 with a broken leg.
Even without two of their best forwards, the Rangers have scored 16 goals in their past three games. They've received hat tricks from Chris Kreider and Matt Puempel, who has five goals in 13 games since the Rangers claimed him off waivers from the Ottawa Senators.
Even J.T. Miller, who found himself on the fourth line before moving to the third line during this streak, has three goals in his past two games.
"Much higher percentage," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said to the New York Daily News after Saturday's game regarding Miller's decisions during the team's two-game road trip.
"Trustworthy is probably the word that comes to mind these last two games. We've been telling him to shoot the puck and his first goal coming down the wing, that's the old-time hockey Guy Lafleur coming down and just woofing one there. It was good for him and he's got to continue to play that way."
Miller told the Daily News, "I like to make plays. I'm confident I can make the high-percentage play, but like me and AV have talked about over the last few years, sometimes that's not it. It's on paper that I'm making more bad plays than good ones. It is what it is, and I've got to put my head down and play well after that."
The Rangers have overcome obstacles of late. The Sabres will need to do the same or any chance of the playoffs will disappear before the All-Star break.
"As a whole team, everyone needs to look in the mirror and we all need to get a lot better," Eichel told The Buffalo News. "I think I speak for the team in saying that we're all frustrated with where we're at, and I don't think I'm the only person in the locker room that's not satisfied."
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