By JOHN WAWROW
AP Hockey Writer
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — As much as Jack Eichel tried to keep his emotions in check, he acknowledged Thursday that he’s still stung by the icy cold reception he got from Sabres fans during his first trip back to Buffalo in March.
There were placards addressing the Vegas Golden Knights center, one of which read, “Thanks for nothing Eichel. Boo.” There were the ferocious chorus of boos, which began during pregame warmups and continued each time the former captain for the Sabres touched the puck.
The response on social media only grew nastier following the Sabres’ 3-1 win in reaction to Eichel noting it being the loudest he’d ever heard a hockey crowd in Buffalo — before sarcastically suggesting it took his departure for fans to get into the game.
“I don’t know why. I probably shouldn’t have been last year, but I was maybe a little surprised by the reception,” Eichel said as Vegas prepared to close a five-game road trip at Buffalo later Thursday evening. “I’m just like anyone else. I’m a human being. It was emotional for me like it probably was for them.
“Maybe I was a little bit hurt.”
Once deemed the franchise’s savior after being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, Eichel became the symbol of the team’s dysfunction over a six-year stint in which Buffalo failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Further complicating matters was an eight-month public squabble over how to treat Eichel’s neck injury, which eventually led to him getting his preferred treatment — disk replacement surgery — following the trade to Vegas some 53 weeks ago.
Now fully healthy, Eichel is leading the surging Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights with 15 points (six goals, nine assists), and said he feels better prepared for whatever the Buffalo crowd might have in store.
“What happened, happened. It’s in the past,” Eichel said. “I’m trying to just focus on the present, and we have a big game tonight. That’s what I’m worried about.”
Otherwise, the 26-year-old bears no hard feelings toward Buffalo or the Sabres.
On the Golden Knights’ off day Wednesday, Eichel took teammates to a local bar for chicken wings for lunch and spent the evening with current Sabres captain Kyle Okposo and his family.
“I’m very thankful for my time in Buffalo and everything I received here from the organization, and all the fans and people of the city,” Eichel said. “I’ve moved on, and I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
He has little reason to complain. The Golden Knights (12-2) are on a roll this season after a rash of injuries led to Vegas missing the playoffs for the first time since the expansion franchise began play in 2017-18.
They entered Buffalo riding an eight-game winning streak, tying the team’s second-longest, and two short of the franchise record. The Golden Knights’ 12 wins are a league-best, so is their 7-1 road record, and they lead the NHL with four wins when trailing in the third period.
The Sabres (7-6) are in the midst of a three-game skid. Coach Don Granato said the focus is on improving Buffalo’s inconsistencies rather than on Eichel.
“This is one of 82 (games), although you do recognize that there was a big trade made between the two teams,” Granato said. “Our job is to play. It’s not to get involved in hype.”
And yet, the coach hoped the Sabres might once again feed off a buzzing crowd as they did in March in what at the time was the best-attended home game of the season and sparked a late-season turnaround in which Buffalo closed the year 14-7-3.
“It’s a big game and we haven’t been in big games in the last 10 years because we haven’t been in the playoffs,” Okposo added. “We don’t need any more pressure, but let’s rise to the challenge.”
AP freelance writer Joe Yerdon contributed to this report.
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