LAS VEGAS — Jack Eichel came to Las Vegas to get back on the ice and get into the playoffs.
Eichel’s desire to reach the playoffs for the first time in his seven-year career hasn’t been fulfilled, though the Golden Knights are mathematically still alive entering the final week of the season.
That said, he might not have gotten this close had Vegas not helped Eichel end a lengthy stalemate with Buffalo over how to treat a herniated disc by acquiring him in a trade with the Sabres in November.
Three months after being the first NHL player to have disc replacement surgery and 11 months since being sidelined, Eichel was once again able to showcase his offensive abilities by registering 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 31 games to rank third on the team.
Eichel’s reemergence led to him becoming Vegas’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
“Being able to play almost three months after having surgery was definitely about as fast as possible,” Eichel said. “But I think whenever you have a major surgery and something of that magnitude, I think it takes more than just a few months, whatever, to feel completely back to yourself.”
The same might be said for many of his new teammates, including forwards Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, who both missed significant time. Injuries have plagued the Golden Knights the entire season, and now they find themselves having to win their final three games and needing help from the opponents facing Dallas, Nashville and Los Angeles.
Aside from his dispute with the Sabres organization over being allowed to have the neck surgery of his choice, Eichel was ready to move on from a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 2010-11 season and was looking to star for a playoff contender. Now the potential of missing out on another postseason overshadows Eichel’s greatest achievement on or off the ice — having a prosthesis inserted into his neck.
“I think every year your goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Eichel said. “You can’t win the Stanley Cup unless you get in the playoffs. When I came here, the standard here is the Stanley Cup. And that’s our goal. Obviously, I think we all understand the situation that we’re in, where we’re at in the standings.
“Obviously, we would like to be in a situation where we’re not battling for our lives to try and get in. Because we think we have a group that can win the Stanley Cup every year. But I think if you take a step back and look at where I was a year ago, and where I am now, I think there’s a lot of positives to take out of that. I went through a lot last year.”
That includes having his captaincy stripped in Buffalo, fans turning on him, and what some might characterize as being ostracized by the Sabres organization.
When he made his return to Buffalo with the Knights on March 10, the fans let him know their displeasure every time he stepped on the ice. The Sabres won the game 3-1, with former Knights Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch — the players involved in the deal that sent Eichel to Vegas — each scoring goals.
But things are different in Vegas, according to Eichel, who said he’s fit nicely into a locker room that has always been known as having some of the best chemistry in the league.
“I’ve made some really good relationships with the guys in the group and the thing I try to do more than anything is be myself,” Eichel said. “That’s sort of what I’ve done my whole career. Come in, work hard, try and lead by example, spend a lot of time on the ice.”