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Red-hot Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel gets back on the ‘pond’ in Winter Classic

NEW YORK — The NHL’s annual Winter Classic is billed as a return to hockey’s roots, eschewing a covered arena for brisk cold and unpredictable elements. The kind of “pond hockey” Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel played as a child in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

But then one notices the 45,000-plus fans, and the rolls of cotton mimicking snow, and the professional baseball locker room where the players lace up their skates instead of using an old log on the side of a lake, and the television cameras filming a documentary about their preparations, and all the trappings that make this a freakish, hyperbolic imitation of “the boys-on-the-frozen-lake” aesthetic.

Hence, the challenge for a guy like Eichel at the Winter Classic is the challenge he faces each day in (another) lost season for the Sabres:

Tune it out. Focus on the game in its simplest and purest form, like he would when he and his father would play outdoors until the last beams of the day’s dying light disappeared.

“You make so many memories just be being out there,” Eichel said. “It’s pretty amazing how much better you can get just with some skates and a stick and a puck. You don’t need a lot.”

If you boil away Jack Eichel’s aesthetics — the franchise-player label that accompanied his No. 2 overall pick in 2015, his place in this wave of young American offensive stars, the disappointment in the Sabres’ 78-93-31 record so far during his era with the team — and cook it down to some skates, a stick and a puck, you notice that he uses all of them better than only a handful of players in the world.

“You see what he does with this speed. He can escape guys. Hold guys off. It’s a unique skill,” Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly said. “To be able to stick handle at that speed … I can’t do it myself. But he can do it, while at the same time holding guys off and getting to a corner and escaping, and still be totally upright and balanced to where he can shoot.”

Eichel scored 24 goals in each of his first two seasons. He’s trending toward his first 30-goal season in Year 3, with 15 goals in 38 games, thanks to a recent offensive surge: seven goals and four assists in his past six games.

“I took a couple veggies out of my pregame meal. Switched up some things,” Eichel said jokingly on the eve of the Classic. “Earlier in the year, there were times I was playing well and not getting rewarded, and felt the same way about the team.”

The nadir of the Sabres’ season were three consecutive games in which they were shut out: Losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins by a combined score of 9-0. Since then, the Sabres have gone 4-3-4, which might not seem like a winning tear through the schedule — except within the context of Buffalo’s futility under first-year coach Phil Housley.

“We have been playing better as of late,” Housley said. “We’d like to be in a better position this season, but this is what it is. Each situation presents its own unique situation [in terms of] what we gotta do to win a hockey game.”

Like, for example, how a star player responds to his team getting held off the scoreboard for three consecutive games.

“Jack, just like our hockey team, took that to heart,” said Housley. “We learned from that. What it takes to win in this league. From that point, Jack has taken his play to another level, which is great to see. He’s a leader. You can see it from his play on the ice.”

What does Eichel look like when he’s playing well?

“I think when he’s skating, that’s when he’s playing his best. Using his speed,” Sabres winger Evander Kane said. “He likes slowing the game down, but when he’s playing at a higher tempo, he’s at his best.”

For Eichel, the hot streak came just as he prepared to step onto the regular season’s grandest stage at Citi Field in New York, against the New York Rangers on New Year’s Day. Like most 21-year-old hockey fans, Eichel has been picturing himself playing in a Winter Classic since the event’s first edition in Buffalo between the Sabres and Penguins 10 years ago.

“Just that ending. At that point in my life, I was a pretty big Sidney Crosby fan,” Eichel said of Crosby’s show-covered shootout winner at Ralph Wilson Stadium. “I’m just excited to be a part of it. Most kids, I think, dream of playing in this game. I was no different.”

When it comes to the Winter Classic, the pond hockey motif has been overplayed to the point of queasiness. It’s hackneyed and it’s inescapable. (And reductive, when you consider how many young players are emerging from non-traditional markets, like Arizona’s own Auston Matthews.)

Yet in speaking to Eichel, the motif is also undeniably applicable. He’s a creature of the frozen lakes, a player born from that experience. “I was fortunate to grow up in an area where there’s a lot of ponds and they love hockey,” he said.

So he skates into Citi Field — in sub-freezing temperatures and shadows dancing along the ice — like that kid from the ponds. Some skates. A stick. A puck. And within context of the Sabres’ disappointing season, perhaps the greatest connection to those nights knocking around the puck with this father: Playing hockey that simultaneously means nothing and everything for Jack Eichel and his team.

“There’s been a lot of tough times, let’s face it,” Housley said. “And we’ve learned from it and grown from it.”

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