BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Jack Eichel embraced his villainous return to the city where his NHL career began by scoring a hat trick, and the league-leading Golden Knights won their ninth game in a row Thursday night, 7-4 against the skidding Sabres, who dropped to .500 with their fourth consecutive loss.
The victory was Eichel’s first in Buffalo since Jan. 30, 2021. The Sabres lost the last four home games Eichel played that season, and beat Vegas last March in Eichel’s return to Buffalo, where his career record is now 83-81-23.
The crowd of 15,757 at KeyBank Center voiced its vitriol for Eichel on every shift, and boomed its disdain whenever he touched the puck. There were frequent chants of “Jack you suck!” The scorn from Sabres fans was amplified by the shipped out captain’s postgame remark that “this is about the loudest I’ve heard this place ever,” when Eichel was booed more lustily than expected in his return last season.
This time the loudest eruptions came when Eichel was stopped on breakaways by Sabres goalie Eric Comrie.
Stretching out his arms to bask in the booing after he knocked in a rebound for his first of three goals in the final period, Eichel had opened the third with an assist on Alex Pietrangelo’s goal that gave Vegas a 4-2 lead.
“They were obviously on me all night,” Eichel said. “Yeah, it felt good to get one.”
Eichel then chest-bumped the boards when he scored his second goal, and gold hats graced the ice when Eichel slung his third into an empty net in the closing seconds.
“He probably should have had seven points tonight,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He was our best player. He was ready to go, he wanted this win. We just wanted to support him, obviously. It’s tough. I mean, they’re on him all night. But it shows the character, wants to win the game, will do anything to win the game and we see the raw emotion when he gets those big goals.”
Eichel was able to laugh off the missed breakaway chances after his third-period scoring surge.
“Yeah, I mean the crowd was enjoying them,” Eichel said. “But, hey, give (Comrie) credit, he made a couple of really nice saves and just got to work on my breakaways I guess.”
With his third career hat trick, and first since scoring four against the Senators on Nov. 16, 2019, which was also the last game in which he notched four points, Eichel now has nine goals and 10 assists for Vegas (13-2-0) this season. Eichel has 42 points in 49 games with the Golden Knights since getting traded out of Buffalo a year ago, and having artificial disk replacement surgery on his injured neck, which the Sabres would not approve.
Tage Thompson scored two goals for the Sabres. Eichel’s heir at the center of Buffalo’s top line has 10 goals this season, and has recorded 15 points over his past seven games. Casey Mittelstadt also scored, and Rasmus Asplund had a shorthanded goal in the third period. Thompson and Mittelstadt each scored on power plays, giving the Sabres goals with the man-advantage in eight consecutive games, the team’s longest streak in eight seasons. Comrie made 29 saves.
“We didn’t look like ourselves early, so maybe we felt a little bit nervous, a little bit anxious,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “But you’ve got to be able to plow past it and live with it.”
Following Tuesday’s loss to the lowly Coyotes, the struggling Sabres (7-7-0) ride their four-game skid in to Saturday night’s game against the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins (11-2-0).
The Golden Knights closed a five-game road trip with their ninth straight win, one short of a franchise record set in April 2021. Rookie Paul Cotter scored the go-ahead goal and added an assist in a game Vegas never trailed. Chandler Stephenson had a goal and three assists, defenseman Pietrangelo had two assists, including the 400th of his career, along with a goal, and Phil Kessel also scored. Logan Thompson stopped 31 shots for his sixth consecutive win, matching the NHL’s longest this season set by New Jersey’s Vitek Vanecek.
Otherwise, all eyes — and boos — were on Eichel in his second game back at the arena the Sabres’ 2015 first-round draft pick called home during a six-year stint in Buffalo.
Once considered the franchise’s savior, Eichel’s tenure ended with the Sabres failing to make the playoffs and following an nasty eight-month public squabble over how to treat a neck injury. Eichel finally had his preferred surgery after being traded to Vegas.
Earlier in the day, Eichel acknowledged being “hurt” by the icy cold reception he received from Sabres fans in his first game at Buffalo, a 3-1 loss in March. Eichel said he wasn’t expecting such a reaction, while adding that perhaps he should have.
Golden Knights captain Mark Stone could only imagine what Eichel was feeling playing in such a hostile environment.
“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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.