Consistency is key as Eichel eyes end to Sabres’ playoff drought

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One of the main goals Jack Eichel believes that the Buffalo Sabres need to reach in 2019-20 is finding consistency in a positive way. Points dropped are points dropped and teams can leapfrog you in the standings easily if you’re going through a bit of a skid.

“There’s going to be games this year where we don’t have it — maybe we’ve been on the road, maybe we’ve been traveling, maybe it’s a back-to-back,” Eichel told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month. “It’s a long season and every night’s not your best night. The best teams find ways to scratch a point out here or there or maybe win a game that they don’t deserve to win. For us, it’s about doing that, finding consistency night in and night out and giving ourselves the best chance to have success.”

The Sabres felt both ends of the consistency scale in 2018-19. After the first two months of season they were top of the NHL, powered by a 10-game win streak. Everything was going well and the dream of ending their then seven-season playoff drought was alive.

When the Sabres went for win No. 11 in a row against Tampa Bay in late November, that’s when the wheels began to fall off. That night would be the start of a five-game losing streak and a final 57-game stretch where Buffalo would tumble down the Eastern Conference standings, winning consecutive games only twice the rest of the season and losing 15 of their last 19 games.

A summer of change saw head coach Phil Housley replaced by Ralph Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill add Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson up front, while bolstering the blue line with the acquisitions of Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Jeff Skinner was also re-signed long-term.

Eichel was impressed when he met with Krueger in Slovakia during the IIHF World Championship last spring. A chat over coffee turned into a multi-hour conversation ranging from hockey to politics to classic rock music.

“He’s so smart, he’s so intriguing as a person,” Eichel said. “I think he has a great vision for our group and I think all the guys are going to respond really well to him.”

[MORE: Krueger holds key to unlocking Sabres’ potential]

Eichel will have a close relationship with Krueger as the team’s captain. His first season wearing the ‘C’ was a mixed one. Personally, the 22-year-old forward hit career highs in goals, assists, and points, but that success came as the team he was leading stumbled in the final three-quarters of the season.

Year one as captain was a learning experience for Eichel. He understood the pressures that come with the captaincy, and now he feels he’s better prepared for the responsibilities that come with the role.

“I felt like I needed to up my game for our team to have success,” he said. “Unfortunately, we struggled in the second half, but the first half of the year a lot of things went well. [We’ve got to] try to emulate that for a full season this year.”

Eichel got a close-up view of what success in the NHL looks like in June. He was in attendance for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden cheering on former teammates Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres) and Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University). That experience has only motivated him even more.

The Sabres have made the postseason only once since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise in Feb. 2011. Money has been spent to try and turn the team into a consistent winner, but that’s failed so far. There’s still plenty of roster reshaping for Botterill to do, but another lost season in Buffalo could lead to more changes, and the players understand the pressure to win in the city and what’s at stake this season.

“It’s almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel said. “With the drought that our franchise has been in for the playoffs, the ups and downs we’ve went through, being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressure to perform and bring success to Buffalo. 

“It can be tough at times, but sometimes it brings the best out of you and brings out the competitive side. We want to win. We want to win bad.”

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Year after elevating Berube, Blues’ success continues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

One year ago Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues fell to the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and dropped to 7-9-3 on the season. The defeat was their fourth in five games and the Blues’ offense was blanked for a third time in four games. 

Enough was enough for Doug Armstrong, who later that evening fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Originally, the Blues general manager planned to cast a wide net in his search for a new head coach. He said he planned to have coaches from the European, junior and college ranks, along with names with NHL experience, like the recently fired Joel Quenneville.

It took some time, but it was clear that Yeo’s full-time replacement was already under contract with the organization, as we all eventually found out.

“He answered the bell,” Armstrong said last spring.

One year later, the Blues finally have a Stanley Cup title and the Blues are lacking any sort of championship hangover as they sit atop the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record and tied for the most points in the Western Conference with 29. They’ve maintained a strong start even after losing Vladimir Tarasenko for likely the rest of the regular season last month. In the 11 games since the winger underwent shoulder surgery St. Louis has a 7-2-2 record.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Jordan Binnington, who’s recall last January helped spark the Blues’ second half run, had a goal this season to prove the doubters wrong. His five-month hot streak has continued into this season with his .923 even strength save percentage in the top 10 among all NHL goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

The Blues haven’t been scoring the lights out since Tarasenko exited the lineup, as they’ve averaged 2.72 goals per game. In fact, their 35 even strength goals are the third-fewest in the NHL this season. They done it with a strong power play (25%) and another balanced approached — much last season. Through 21 games, only Brayden Schenn (11) has hit double digits in goals scored and 18 different players have lit the lamp.

Berube’s message has stayed with the Blues and after a long search to find their identity, success has followed. When he took the job, he saw a team lacking in confidence. It was a good team he was inheriting, but there was one thing missing.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said during the Stanley Cup Final in June. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

Players know where they stand under Berube, and that plays a huge role in earning their trust. That attribute is what turned an interim gig into a championship run and a full-time opportunity.

“He’s an honest guy,” Armstrong told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He speaks from the heart. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. I think he’s accountable to himself and accountable to the team as a whole. And I think he requires each individual to be accountable to the team as a whole also.”

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Hathaway faces potential suspension for spitting

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Getting thrown out of the game probably won’t be the end of Garnet Hathaway’s punishment for spitting on an opponent.

The Washington Capitals forward could be suspended, or at the very least fined, for spitting on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson toward the end of a brawl Monday night. Officials gave Hathaway a match penalty that carries with it an ejection and an automatic suspension pending review by the NHL office.

Asked after the Capitals’ 5-2 victory if he expected further discipline, Hathaway said, “I think time will tell with that.” He added he regretted spitting on Gudbranson.

The Ducks were angry at Hathaway for what they called disrespectful behavior but didn’t want to speculate what might happen next. They’re off to the next stop on their road trip, and the Capitals don’t know if they’ll have Hathaway for their next game Wednesday at the New York Rangers.

Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins called it above his pay grade. Gudbranson said: “I have no idea. I’ll trust the league with that.”

Boston Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand was warned during the playoffs for licking opponents but was not suspended. There’s little precedent for Hathaway’s actions, other than the part of the rulebook that deems it worthy of an ejection and the league’s process of having its hockey operations department review each match penalty.

Washington is already up against the salary cap with the minimum 12 forwards and six defensemen healthy. If Hathaway is suspended, it could wreak havoc on the Capitals’ roster.

“It seems like it’s been a constant equation for us the last little while here,” coach Todd Reirden said. “(We’ll) see where we’re at in terms of injured players and potential situation here with whatever the league does. It’s out of my hands now.”

MORE: Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson

Women’s legend Wickenheiser among new hockey Hall of Famers

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TORONTO (AP) — Hayley Wickenheiser hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect.

The Canadian women’s hockey star – a quadruple Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion – retired in January 2017 and enrolled in medical school.

As if there wasn’t enough on her plate already, she then took on the role as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs in August 2018.

Wickenheiser got a chance to look back at her standout playing career on Monday night.

The 41-year-old was among six inductees enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining three-time Stanley Cup winner Guy Carbonneau, offensive blue-line dynamo Sergei Zubov and Czech great Vaclav Nedomansky in the players’ category.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and longtime Boston College coach Jerry York went into the hall as builders.

”It was not a common thing as a little girl to want to play hockey in the small town where I came from,” Wickenheiser said during her speech. ”But my mom and dad believed that a girl could do anything that a boy could.”

Wickenheiser recounted sleeping in a closet for a week just so she could attend an all-boys hockey camp.

”I wanted to play the game so bad, I didn’t care what I had to endure,” she said.

She went on to play for boys’ teams in Calgary – there weren’t any for girls, and she’d tuck her hair under her helmet to avoid standing out – but still had to fight.

”I was taking the spot of a boy, and people didn’t really like that too much,” Wickenheiser said. ”I actually developed an ulcer. I wasn’t nervous to get hit or to go on the ice. That’s actually where I felt good. It was when I had to come to the rink and change in the bathroom and then walk through the lobby of all the parents – the comments and the harassment I would often hear.

”Those things gave me thick skin and resilience.”

She went onto have a stellar 23-year career with Canada and played professionally in Europe, blazing a trail at a time when the women’s game was desperately looking for traction.

Wickenheiser, who has medical school exams Wednesday, put up 379 points in 276 games to help secure four straight Olympic golds (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) as well as those seven world titles.

Named the MVP of both the 2002 and 2006 Olympic tournaments, the former center is the seventh woman to be inducted into the hall.

”The first Olympics that we lost (in 1998) was not a fun one, but the four after that were some of the best experiences of my life,” said Wickenheiser, who was Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Games. ”One of the greatest honors I’ve ever had was to put on that Canadian jersey.”

The 59-year-old Carbonneau won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens, and again in 1999 with the Dallas Stars.

He was an attacking force in junior hockey, but transitioned to the other side of the puck in the NHL, becoming one of the game’s premiere shutdown centers on the way to winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Carbonneau, who retired in 2000 and waited 16 years before getting inducted in the hall, finished with 663 points in 1,318 regular-season games.

”I was dreaming about playing in the NHL, dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, dreaming of scoring a goal in the playoffs,” said Carbonneau, who had 93 playoff points. ”But being inducted in the Hall of Fame? Never in my wildest dreams.”

A smooth-skating defenseman with terrific vision, Zubov played 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with Dallas, registering 771 points in 1,068 regular-season games. The 49-year-old from Moscow added 117 points in the post-season, helping the New York Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup in 1994 before doing it again with the Stars in 1999.

Zubov, who also won Olympic gold in 1992 with the Unified Team after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said he didn’t want to go to Dallas after getting dealt in 1996.

”Get me traded,” he recounted telling his agent. ”But (Stars general manager) Bob Gainey did his homework and sent the most beautiful bouquet of flowers to my wife.

”She said, ‘Maybe we should give it a try.”’

An NHL goalie from 1970 to 1983, Rutherford was named GM of the Hartford Whalers in 1994. He stuck with the franchise when it moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes, and built the roster that won the organization’s only Cup in 2006.

The 70-year-old took on the same role with the Penguins in 2014 and helped guide Pittsburgh to titles in 2016 and 2017, making him the only GM to win Cups with two different teams since the league expanded in 1967.

”Don’t let anyone tell you (that) you can’t do something, because that was the story of my career,” Rutherford said. ”And the more they told me I couldn’t do things, the more it turned out that I did.”

The 75-year-old Nedomansky starred for 12 years in his native Czechoslovakia before becoming the first athlete from an Eastern European communist country to defect to North America to pursue a professional hockey career in 1974.

He played parts of three seasons in the World Hockey Association before jumping to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings as a 33-year-old rookie.

”It was difficult, complicated, stressful,” Nedomansky said of his decision to defect. ”I’m so happy that I’m here.”

The 74-year-old York, who’s in his 48th season behind the bench, owns five NCAA titles, including four with the Eagles, and has the most wins in U.S. college history.

”I just love coaching,” York said. ”I love the people we coach.”

But the night really was about Wickenheiser, who concluded by addressing her 5- and 6-year-old nieces in the audience.

”If they decide to play hockey, they can walk into a hockey rink anywhere in Canada with a hockey bag and a hockey stick over their shoulder, and nobody’s going to look twice,” she said. ”They don’t have to cut their hair short and run into the bathroom and try to look like a boy like I had to do to blend in. The road is just a little bit easier. I want to thank everyone that made that road easier for me and is continuing to pave the way.

”The game is truly for everyone.”