By JOHN WAWROW
AP Hockey Writer
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jack Eichel welcomed the boos in Buffalo this time by scoring three third-period goals and adding an assist in his second game against his former team as the Vegas Golden Knights routed the Sabres 7-4 on Thursday night.
After being booed each time he touched the puck, and cheered on the two times he was foiled on breakaway attempts, Eichel raised his arms and mugged for the unhappy crowd after converting a rebound to put the Golden Knights ahead 5-2 six minutes into the third period.
Traded to Vegas a little over a year ago, the Sabres former captain then pounded his chest along the boards after scoring his second goal with 5:23 remaining to send the crowd to the exits, and closed the night by scoring into an empty net.
“You guys were here, they were obviously on me all night,” a relieved and happy Eichel said. “Yeah, it felt good to get one.”
It must have felt even better for a Eichel, showered and dressed in a suit, to emerge from the Zamboni entrance and head into the stands where he was greeted by applause and hugs from his family, his girlfriend and friends gathered in one corner of the arena long after the final horn sounded.
The Golden Knights closed a five-game road trip by improving their NHL-leading to 13-2 while extending their winning streak to nine, one short of a franchise record set in April 2021.
Rookie Paul Cotter scored the go-ahead goal and added an assist in a game Vegas never trailed. Chandler Stephenson had a goal and three assists, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo had a goal and two assists and Phil Kessel also scored.
Logan Thompson stopped 31 shots for his sixth consecutive win, matching the NHL’s longest this season set by New Jersey’s Vitek Vanecek.
Tage Thompson scored twice and Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Asplund also scored for Buffalo, which has dropped four straight. Eric Comrie stopped 29 shots.
“We didn’t look like ourselves early, so maybe we felt a little bit nervous, a little bit anxious,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “But you’ve got to be able to plow past it and live with it.”
Cotter, who returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for 10 games, broke a 2-2 tie by scoring on a breakaway with 2:52 remaining in the second period.
Otherwise, all eyes — and boos — were on Eichel in his second game back at the arena the Sabres’ 2015 first-round draft pick called home during a six-year stint in Buffalo.
Once considered the franchise’s savior, Eichel’s tenure ended with the Sabres failing to make the playoffs and following an nasty eight-month public squabble over how to treat a neck injury. Eichel finally had his preferred disk replacement surgery after being traded to Vegas.
Golden Knights captain Mark Stone could only imagine what Eichel was feeling playing in such a hostile environment.
“It says a lot about his character. I know people here think he doesn’t have character but, my God, we’ve seen what Jack really is and he’s carrying a big load for us,” said Stone. “For him to be able to do that tonight, I know it’s special for him. I’m almost getting emotional just being a part of it.”
Earlier in the day, Eichel acknowledged being “hurt” by the icy cold reception he received from Sabres fans in his first game at Buffalo, a 3-1 loss in March. Fans held signs dismissing Eichel, and he was booed during pregame warmups and each time he touched the puck in Buffalo’s 3-1 win on March 10.
On Thursday, Eichel was once again booed during warmups, and the chorus grew even louder each time he carried the puck during the game.
One of the biggest cheers from the crowd came 12:15 in when Comrie made a glove save to stop Eichel on a clear-cut breakaway. A similar roar went up when Comrie got his left pad out to stop an Eichel breakaway attempt four minutes into the second period.
Eichel was able to laugh off the missed chances afterward.
“Yeah, I mean the crowd was enjoying them,” Eichel said with a laugh. “But, hey, give (Comrie) credit, he made a couple of really nice saves and just got to work on my breakaways I guess.”
STREAKS AND MILESTONES
The Sabres have scored a power-play goal in eight straight, matching their longest run since Dec. 19, 2008, to Jan. 6, 2009. … Pietrangelo picked up his 400th career assist on Eichel’s first goal.
Golden Knights: Open three-game homestand against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night.
Sabres: Continue four-game home stand hosting the Boston Bruins on Saturday night.
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