Golden Knights Eichel’s anxieties ease in return to Buffalo

Golden Knights Eichel’s anxieties ease in return to Buffalo

Golden Knights Eichel’s anxieties ease in return to Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Whatever butterflies Jack Eichel felt during his first visit back to Buffalo gradually dissipated as the Vegas Golden Knights’ practice came to a close on Wednesday.

Completing the final team drill at one end of the ice, Eichel skated to the empty end and began snapping pucks into the open net from various angles when a smile emerged on his face. The former Sabres captain, wearing a white practice jersey with a Golden Knights logo on the chest, finally began feeling at ease.

“I told Patty, I scored a couple from here,” Eichel said, referring to teammate Nolan Patrick in pointing to spots in an arena where he scored 87 of his 139 goals during six seasons with Buffalo. “Yeah, I’ve had a lot of great memories in this building.”

Another one will come Thursday night, when Eichel plays his first game in Buffalo since getting traded to Vegas on Nov. 4 in a deal that ended an eight-month stalemate with the Sabres over how to treat a neck injury. It will also mark Eichel’s first game in Buffalo since a 3-0 loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 28 of last year, a week before being sidelined by the injury at Long Island.

“It’s a little awkward walking in here and going to the visitors’ room, but other guys have done it so it’s business as usual,” said Eichel, who will play his 11th game since being cleared to return.

The injury is behind him, with the Golden Knights allowing Eichel to have the artificial disc replacement procedure he preferred and refused by Sabres doctors, who instead recommended fusion surgery. And he’s put aside whatever frustrations he had toward the Sabres, from the dispute over surgery to the six losing seasons he experienced after being selected second overall in the 2015 NHL draft.

“No bitterness. None,” he said. “I had a phenomenal time here in Buffalo. Lived out my childhood dream playing in my first NHL game. The organization, the city was nothing but great for me and my family.”

If time heals most wounds, Eichel also benefits from the change of scenery — in both geography and especially the NHL standings.

No longer a member of a dysfunctional Sabres franchise, which is all but destined to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for an NHL-record 11th season, the 25-year-old is playing for a Golden Knights team seeking to make its fifth consecutive postseason appearance since being established in 2017.

Rather than having to shoulder the burden of being the so-called franchise savior in Buffalo, Eichel is but one piece of a talent- and leadership-laden team in Vegas.