For a rivalry to transcend just a few relatives from the same region squabbling, say, during the holidays, it has to mean something. One, if not both, of the teams have to have a lot on the line, more often than not.
So, the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs don’t really have much of a rivalry right now. Generally, both teams’ greatest rivals lately have, frankly, been themselves.
But like with most things Sabres-related, you’d be foolish to blame Jack Eichel.
Considering Toronto’s relative proximity to Buffalo, a lot of Sabres home games get invaded by buds of the Buds, and Eichel doesn’t seem to be one of those players who will just pretend to be oblivious. He seems to take an extra pleasure in sticking it to those who barge in to Buffalo, and continued that tradition during the Sabres’ 6-4 win against the Maple Leafs on Black Friday.
As you can see in the highlights above, Jack Eichel had himself a game, scoring two goals and one assist. It was an all-around effort, with Eichel firing eight shots on goal, enjoying a +4 rating, logging more than 21 minutes of ice time, and even winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.
It’s tough to blame people for praising Eichel’s efforts when he combines the flashy box score-stuffing stats with hustle plays.
And, again, Eichel admits that seeing so many Maple Leafs fans in the building only fuels his fire.
“We’d obviously like to see more Buffalo fans in the crowd but like you said, it’s a little extra motivation,” Eichel said, according to Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News.
The greatest moment of Eichel revving up this not-quite-there-yet rivalry came in March 2017, when he clearly trolled some Leafs fans after he scored his second goal of that game, a contest Buffalo won 5-2. You can see Eichel taunting those bummed out Maple Leafs fans most clearly at the end of the clip (around the one-minute mark):
Sure, you can say that some of it is a coincidence. Eichel is downright lighting it up most nights, as this performance boosted Eichel to an impressive 16 goals and 34 points in just 26 games, putting him far ahead of any other Sabres player.
But coincidence or not, Eichel really has been at his best against Toronto. Sabres PR points out that Eichel has scored a whopping 11 goals in just 14 games against the Maple Leafs during his career, Eichel’s best output versus any opponent.
If it’s too much to ask to surround Eichel with better teammates, maybe the trick should be to convince Sabres fans to wear the opposing teams’ sweaters during home games? Just throwing it out there.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.