Kraken forward Jordan Eberle had the caps cascading down from the stands when his third goal of Thursday night’s contest gave him the franchise’s first-ever hat-trick and a final period cushion his team had struggled all game to achieve.
But it was actually Eberle’s first goal of the game, a tying marker late in the second period that likely swung things in favor of an increasingly frustrated home side. Though the Kraken dominated the shots total and overall play throughout this 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, it looked for a long while as if this contest might end far more badly than it did.
“For the most part I thought we were playing well but when you look up at the shot clock it’s like 25-8 and we’re down by a goal with like a minute or two minutes left,” Eberle said of his tying goal, which came just 26 seconds after Kyle Okposo had given the visitors a stunning 2-1 lead.
“You know, that’s heartbreaking,” he said of falling behind with just 2:01 to play before intermission in a period the Sabres were outshot 16-5 yet scored twice. “And then we find a way to score late in the second and tie the game up and that was a big goal. It kind of switched momentum back, especially after them scoring late.”
Jaden Schwartz did much of the work in a scrum in behind the net before centering a pass out to Eberle parked low in the right faceoff circle. Eberle rarely misses those one-timed chances, though in a game in which his team squandered five breakaway chances nothing was really certain.
Schwartz finished things off with three assists and an empty net goal with Sabres netminder Dustin Tokarski pulled late for an extra attacker. By then, Eberle’s second and third of the night in the final frame had eased much of the tension for 17,151 fans at Climate Pledge Arena. For most of the night the home side had been drawn into a “trap” game by a Sabres franchise that’s been hard-luck for most of the past decade.
But Buffalo entered this game a surprising 5-3-1. In Thursday’s early morning hours, it traded former star captain Jack Eichel and had viewed this game as a fresh start in the latest phase of a seemingly endless rebuilding plan.
For a while, it looked as if former Spokane Chiefs netminder Tokarski might be able to pull things out. But then Eberle scored the go-ahead goal 1:50 into the final period, taking a nice feed from Alex Wennberg, breezing by a defender and shifting to his forehand before flipping the puck behind Tokarski.
Then, seven minutes later, the caps were falling to the ice in salute of a natural three-consecutive-goal hat trick when Eberle blew a delayed slapshot between Tokarski’s pads he almost certainly would like to have back.
But the Kraken, having outshot the Sabres 37-21, weren’t giving anything back to their opponents after truly working for this one.
“An aggressive forecheck for us is really a part of our game plan,” Schwartz said. “We want to play quick and generate a lot of offense. Put the puck behind their D … keep wearing them down. That’s something we’ve been able to do and we continue to grow.”
The Kraken looked far more energetic and dominant throughout the first period than they had much of the last homestand and in Monday night’s loss to Edmonton. They moved the puck around with increased proficiency as the opening frame wore on and struck just after the expiration of a power play when Morgan Geekie took a cross-ice pass from Wennberg and one-timed it home past Tokarski for a 1-0 lead at the 15:42 mark.
A prior generation of hockey fans might recall the French Connection line version of the Sabres, where Gilbert Perrault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert dazzled fans nightly and propelled Buffalo all the way to its first Stanley Cup Final in 1975. Alas, apart from some strong playoff teams backstopped in the 1980s by goaltenders Don Edwards and later a young upstart Tom Barrasso, the Sabres didn’t get back to the finals again until 1999 under coach Lindy Ruff.
But its been slim pickings since, amplified by a decade of drafting futility and bad luck, capped by a showdown with onetime future franchise star Eichel.
Buffalo looks to have made out better in dumping Eichel to Vegas early Thursday after a standoff with their 25-year-old star and former No. 2 overall pick from 2015. Eichel had been stripped of his captaincy over a dispute on how to handle a herniated disk in his neck.
Eichel’s camp wanted artificial disk replacement surgery – which no NHL player has ever undergone – while his team, which has final say under the collective bargaining agreement, wanted a different procedure.
The most recent defeat, to lowly San Jose, had Sabres coach Don Granato – the brother of Kraken pro scout and Hall of Famer Cammi Granato – musing aloud about his team’s need to stay aggressive throughout games.
The Kraken had received much the same message from coach Dave Hakstol. His players seemed to have received it and Eberle provided just enough finish to prevent the resulting chances from all going to waste.
“It’s nice to have a little puck luck,” Hakstol said after this one. “And we got that on the fourth goal. Also, just the hunger to get to those areas and really expect to be able to punch those home, that’s still an area that can grow for us and getting a few tonight, helps them.”