BOSTON — Jack Eichel had a shorter-than-usual commute to the rink Saturday morning.
“I didn’t have to fly in this morning,” the Buffalo Sabres forward said. “I just drove. Half-hour. It’s nice.”
The Sabres’ super-sized holiday break — they enjoyed six days off between games, while some teams had as few as three — allowed Eichel to spend close to a week back in his hometown of North Chelmsford, Mass., ahead of his first-ever meeting with the team he grew up rooting for.”
That team would be the Boston Bruins, who host Buffalo on Saturday night at TD Garden. Eichel, who was playing just down the road at Boston University at this point last year, understandably had the date circled on his calendar.
“This is exciting for me,” the 19-year-old said. “There’s going to be so many family and friends here, and growing up, going to the Bruins games, you always dream of playing in the Garden. And now I’m going to get to do it for the first time against the Bruins, so I’m just really excited about it.”
The Bruins were integral to Eichel, as a hockey-playing kid in New England. During his meeting with reporters Saturday morning, he immediately recalled his first B’s game — Mats Sundin scored an overtime game-winner for the Toronto Maple Leafs, spoiling Eichel’s 4th birthday — and his most memorable: Boston’s wild, brawl-filled, 8-6 win over the rival Montreal Canadiens in February 2011.
“There was, like, 10 guys left on each bench after the whole game had ended,” he said. “I remember being here for that game. That was crazy.”
Eichel’s Garden memories aren’t limited to what games he watched from the stands, though. In his one season at BU, he led the Terriers to Beanpot and Hockey East championships and a berth in the national title game, which they lost to Providence in stunning fashion.
“There’s been a lot of good memories,” Eichel said. “Obviously, last year had a lot of really good ones, winning a Beanpot and a Hockey East championship. This building’s been pretty good to me.”
The freshman phenom also garnered a boatload of conference and national honors, including college hockey’s highest prize, the Hobey Baker Award, and racked up 71 points — more than any first-year college player since Paul Kariya. Two-and-a-half months after Eichel’s final college game, Buffalo made him the second overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.
“They’ve flown by,” Eichel said of his 34 games so far as a Sabre. “It’s been busy. It seems like yesterday I was getting to training camp and starting that rookie tournament, and now, we just passed Christmas, and we’re looking into 2016. It’s been flying by, but it’s been great. We have a really good group of guys in the room, and I’m really just enjoying playing in the NHL.”
Taking the Garden ice will feel different Saturday than it ever has, and Eichel admitted there will be butterflies in his stomach leading up to puck drop. But in the end, he said, “it’s just another hockey game.”
“I’ve obviously excited about it, but it’s a big game for us,” Eichel said. “The Bruins have played really well lately, so we need this one.”
Thumbnail photo via Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Images
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