Selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel didn’t come close to qualifying for the playoffs in each of his first six NHL seasons. And last season, after being acquired in a trade with Buffalo on Nov. 4, 2021, Vegas failed to make the playoffs for the first time in its history.
But now, Eichel is in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Golden Knights earned a 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 on Saturday thanks in part to the forward again being in the right place at the right time.
With the scored tied 2-2 at 6:59 of the third period, Eichel got his stick on the rebound of a shot from Ivan Barbashev, who was then able to get the puck and pass up to defenseman Zach Whitecloud for a shot from above the circles that made it 3-2. Eichel then picked Carter Verhaeghe‘s pocket and passed to Reilly Smith, who scored an empty-net goal with 1:45 remaining in the third to seal the game. In between, he was in the midst of some feistiness, including coming to the aid of defenseman Nicolas Hague and goaltender Adin Hill.
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There were no goals in any of that for Eichel, but that’s the point, he doesn’t need to score them to be effective. He can do everything else just as well, and that was on display in Game 1.
“A complete package,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said on Sunday. “He’s a force offensively, but he also does a good job defensively. You see in the last minute of the game there he strips the puck there for Reilly to get an empty-net goal. He just does it all for us.”
Eichel leads the Golden Knights and is tied for third in the NHL with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 18 games this postseason. He also leads Vegas with six power-play points, is first among its forwards in blocks (23), and has 15 takeaways.
Whatever the Golden Knights have needed, Eichel has usually supplied it.
“He fits the system,” forward William Carrier said. “The way we want to play, the center has a lot of responsibility in our D zone, and he’s great for us. He finishes checks, he’s hard to play against, and he’s super fast. So, he’s really tough to beat. Even if you think you’ve got a step on him, he’s going to get caught up. He has a great stick. We talk about [Mark Stone’s] stick, but Jack has a great stick, too, and he steals a lot of pucks.”
It’s been a long wait to get here for Eichel, who said prior to Game 1 that he was enjoying every bit of it.
“Credit to our group. I thought we’ve played some really good hockey here,” he said on Friday. “Sort of what Bruce (Cassidy) was harping on throughout the season. You want to be playing your best coming into the spring and hopefully into early summer, and I feel like we’ve done that.”
So has Eichel, and his biggest contributions haven’t always come on offense.
“He does a lot of things away from the puck that go unnoticed,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “Obviously, coming off his surgery (disk replacement surgery in November 2021), for the physical play to be at the level he is now, he’s a big, strong guy. You see him when you stand beside him, there’s a reason why he’s as powerful as he is. I don’t think he gets enough credit at the defensive side of the game for what he’s capable of doing.”
Eichel has been showing it all postseason, though, and as a result, he and the Golden Knights are three wins away from their first Stanley Cup championship.
“We’ve talked all year about his 200-foot game. He’s been excellent,” Cassidy said. “From Day One, he bought into training camp, how we want to defend in our end, so there’s just a lot of closing responsibilities for the centermen, and with his speed and size and strength and good stick, he’s been real good at it. His reloads are excellent. He’s caught I don’t know how many plays this year from behind.
“At the end of the day, we trust him against anybody. He does a good job against anybody, and obviously very dynamic when he has the puck.”