It’s been 346 days since Jack Eichel last played an NHL game. He was playing for the Buffalo Sabres then, now he’s with the Vegas Golden Knights, going from a perennial draft lottery team to one that’s had eyes on a Stanley Cup since entering the league.
Eichel’s first game with the Golden Knights will come Wednesday night during a nationally-televised matchup against the Colorado Avalanche, a meeting of two Cup favorites.
Some players might have nerves considering the expectations Eichel has on him following the trade, but he’s not showing any.
“I understand it’s been 11 months, I didn’t have any preseason games and having to jump in there against the best team in the League right now,” said Eichel. “But at the end of the day, it’s hockey. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. So I’ll just try to find my game, get as comfortable as I can as quickly as possible and I think I’ll be all right.”
Eichel’s last game was March 7, 2021. Eight months later he underwent artificial disk replacement surgery on his neck, eight days after being traded from Buffalo to Las Vegas. (If you’re wondering, the Golden Knights visit the Sabres March 10.)
“I’m sure it’s going to take a couple of times for that hump to be done,” Eichel said of moving past the injury. “It’s like any injury, I think. There’s sort of that mental hump to it, and I’m sure there’s going to be that moment where I’ll get over it.”
Having such a talented new face in the lineup should provide a boost for the Golden Knights. They’ve had a week between games and are coming off a 6-0 defeat against the Calgary Flames. They’re ready to put that game in the rear-view mirror.
“I would think our adrenaline should be high because we got our a– kicked in Calgary last game 6-0,” said head coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think that’s where it should start, and then Jack coming into the lineup should be a piece.”
A tough first opponent for Eichel
The Avalanche saw their 19-game point streak come to an end with Tuesday night’s loss to the Dallas Stars. It was also their first home defeat since Oct. 26 when Vegas beat them 3-1 and their first regulation loss since Dec. 16.
“Whenever we’re playing Colorado, we’ve always had some good battles against them,” said Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb. “So you’re always measuring yourself against them. For sure, we’re at midseason right now and it is another game, but it’s always one we look forward to here.”
Wednesday’s game could be a preview of a Stanley Cup Playoff series later this spring. If Vegas is to win its first championship, they could have to go through the Avalanche to get there. Owner Bill Foley made it clear when starting the Golden Knights franchise that he expected “playoffs in three, Stanley Cup in six.” It’s year five, and after the timeline was blown up by an historic inaugural year, the franchise remains in “Cup or bust” mode.
“I think [Foley] made it clear that, obviously, the expectation here in Vegas is certainly to win the Stanley Cup,” Eichel said. “I think that should be every team’s expectation, and it’s great that the organization feels that way and everything that we do during the season is geared towards winning.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.