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BUFFALO THRILLS

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A WOEFUL 25-WIN TEAM A SEASON AGO, THE SABRES HAVE LEAPED OUT OF THE CELLAR, THANKS TO A COACH WITH LOCAL ROOTS AND A STAR UNAFRAID OF LOFTY GOALS. A WINNING RECORD? PLAYOFFS? A STANLEY CUP? CAN YOU IMAGINE? JACK EICHEL CAN

SETTING DOWN his turkey burger, Jack Eichel gazes through the windows of a downtown Buffalo restaurant and once again imagines the future. He sees a surrounding riverside area choked with game-day traffic, blue-and-white Sabres jerseys spilling toward KeyBank Center beneath an early-summer sky. He pictures live music blaring and cameras panning overhead, broadcasting crowd shots to a national audience. He hears chants—LET'S! GO! BUFF-A-LO!—and smells beer. After all, Eichel notes, "Buffalonians don't mind the tailgate."

He visualizes because that is how he has always pursued his goals. Growing up in North Chelmsford, Mass., Eichel would tack articles about local athletes receiving college scholarships to the walls of his family's basement, extra motivation while cranking out squats before middle school. Even when the 2015 draft was years away, the background image of his iPod Touch was a picture mosaic of more-highly-regarded prospects, including the only one who would actually get picked ahead of him, Edmonton's Connor McDavid. He also programmed the device to deliver a daily morning reminder: HOW BAD DO YOU WANT TO MAKE THE NHL?

Now that Eichel is there—not to mention captaining the Sabres at age 22, burnishing his Hart Trophy credentials with 46 points in 35 games, and generally realizing his potential as the savior for one of pro sports' most woebegone cities—he is singularly focused on an even higher goal. "Constantly thinking about what it'd be like," he says, nodding toward the waterfront, "first of all, to be in the playoffs. Then to get a good run going would be awesome."

Awesome. Eichel uses that word a lot these days. Thirteen times, to be precise, during an hourlong lunch following a recent Sabres practice. It was awesome living with his parents, Bob and Anne, last summer for the first time since leaving Boston University after his freshman year. It was awesome when Buffalo won the 2018 draft lottery, which would bring aboard dynamo Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Ditto for Eichel's recent decision to hire a personal chef.

Of course, the most "awesome" thing lately is the love Eichel has felt in Buffalo now that its hockey team has rediscovered relevancy: third in the Eastern Conference at 20-10-5 through Dec. 19, five wins shy of its 2017--18 season total. Fervor peaked as the Sabres reeled off 10 straight victories from Nov. 8 through 27, tying a franchise record. "Everyone's going out of their way to stop you and tell you how proud they are," he says. "Even when things were bad, I really credit this city for being patient. I'm from Boston. It's not that way there at all."

Indeed, Eichel was born into a generation practically baptized with champagne; the Curse of the Bambino was broken on the eve of his eighth birthday. "I saw the Sox win in '07 and '13, the Celtics when they had the Big Three, the Patriots win a million times," he says. "The equipment guys here joke that I grew up spoiled."

But already Eichel has received a blunt education about life in the land of Wide Right and Skate in the Crease. After finishing 23rd, 26th and 31st overall in the three years since Eichel arrived, the Sabres drew boos following the first period of their season-opening shutout loss to Boston on Oct. 4. (O.K., so maybe not so patient.) Since then, though, Buffalo has been the league's biggest surprise of the season's first half, on track to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010--11.

"We have a lot of great stories going on with our team right now," general manager Jason Botterill says, "but they usually start with Jack."

AND WHERE does Eichel's story in Buffalo begin? Consider the 157-foot, $35 million luxury yacht with four-deck elevator service and a spa jacuzzi. Or, as Bob Eichel puts it, "a big-ass boat."

It was a Saturday in late June 2015, the night after then GM Tim Murray all but dropped the mike announcing the second pick of the draft: "Buffalo selects Jack Eichel." Docked in the harbor of nearby Boca Raton, Fla., the big-ass boat—actual name: Top Five—belongs to Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who were hosting Eichel's family and representatives for a celebratory dinner. "A very welcoming tone," agent Peter Fish says. "But it was serious: We think you're the guy who's going to help us win."

More than most, Terry Pegula understands the urgency. The oil-and-gas magnate first moved to western New York in 1975, right after the Sabres lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Flyers. He held four season tickets at the old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, two reds and two blues, until selling them before the '97--98 season. The team won the Eastern Conference title the following year. "Everybody told that me that I must've been the jinx," Pegula says.

When he bought the Sabres in February 2011, he was moved to tears at the mere sight of French Connection center Gilbert Perreault at the press conference. And so it is not without serious regard for history that he includes Eichel in the same breath today as the Hall of Famer. "The team was new then, and it came on rather fast with Perreault as one of the cornerstones," Pegula says. "And now we're rising again."

The reason for his optimism? As he told his wife, president of the Sabres and the Bills, whenever she expressed concern over the last three years: "Hey, don't worry, we've got Jack."

Relative to McDavid, the grand prize in the NHL's Great Tankathon of 2014--15, Eichel exhibits a subtler version of on-ice superstardom. He can still twist ankles with toe-drags, like how he undressed Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov before scoring his second goal in a 4--3 shootout loss against the defending Stanley Cup champs on Dec. 15. But the 6'2", 200-pound Eichel also employs a remarkably efficient stride, keeping his upper body upright and knees bent deep, pumping his long arms. Botterill says Eichel skates like he is using an old NordicTrak machine. Buffalo winger Jason Pominville chooses a different machine: "Like Lemieux. He's kind of effortless. You don't think he's going fast, but he can fly."

At his best Eichel is a one-man breakout factory, fishing pucks from scrums; weaving past backcheckers with those NordicTrak gallops; warding away pressure with his raw strength. In this way Eichel is an avatar for the modern-day, two-way NHL centerman, "as well-rounded a player as I've ever seen," says Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, a 11-year vet. "You can't say one bad thing about his game."

But his Sabres had never had a promising future—and that didn't change until Eichel connected with their past.

THE GAME at the Aud had already ended, but still Sabres fans stuck around on April 9, 1983. The ovation swelled for 15 minutes, cheers and chants to celebrate a first-round sweep over Montreal. Down on the ice the youngest player on the home team was left gobsmacked. "I'll never forget that," says Phil Housley. "When you're winning, there's no place better."

Then 19, Housley would anchor the Sabres blue line for seven more seasons. After a 21-year Hall of Fame career, which he finished as the highest-scoring American player ever (since dethroned by Mike Modano), Housley returned to Buffalo as head coach in June 2017, fresh off a Cup finals appearance as an assistant with Nashville. His first season, however, was a debacle. The team won just 25 times, and Eichel missed 14 games with a high-ankle sprain he suffered two weeks after his first All-Star Game. "When things were bad, everyone distanced themselves from one another," Eichel says. "We weren't able to build those relationships that we wanted. I think we took some good steps this summer, and it translated."

At BU, Eichel won a Hobey Baker Award under David Quinn, a players' coach now leading another New York rebuilding effort (the Rangers). Housley is similarly wired. He organized a July round of golf at Minnesota's Windsong Farm and a September visit to a Rochester, N.Y., welding facility, where players hammered and forged an actual sabre. He also invited the team's leadership group, including Eichel, on a preseason trip to North Carolina. Activities ranged from working out with military personnel to discussing books; Eichel brought a dog-eared copy of Legacy, author James Kerr's deep dive into the dynastic New Zealand All Blacks. "A lot of good stuff about how to be a leader," he says.

For Eichel, leading on the ice has never been an issue; since coming to Buffalo, he has had a hand in 31.4% of the team's goals. "He has such an impact on our team," Botterill says. "They feed off his energy." In the past this cut both ways. Unfamiliar with chronic losing, Eichel often let his body language do the talking. "When hockey's good, I'm probably a better person," he says. "When hockey's bad, I'm a little bit bitter and pissed off.... [But I've learned] it's important to worry about being a good teammate, making sure your relationships stay strong through poor times."

Since becoming captain on Oct. 3—Terry Pegula recalls Eichel welling up with pride upon receiving the news—he has taken a hands-on approach. He treated the team to dinner in Nashville and spent 10 minutes offering tips on one-timers to Dahlin at practice after the rookie mishit several in a game against Los Angeles.

By signing an eight-year, $80 million max-term contract in October 2017, Eichel has already made his big commitment to Buffalo. "As an athlete, I feel like I'm more a part of this city than Boston by a long shot now," he says. "I'm emotionally invested." And between new arrivals like Dahlin, second-line center Casey Mittelstadt, goalie Carter Hutton (.917 save percentage) and twinkle-toed left winger Jeff Skinner (25 goals), Eichel is surrounded by more talent than ever.

Every rebuilding outfit must deal with growing pains, such as the five-game losing streak that followed their 10 straight wins. But then there are days like Dec. 16, when Eichel scorched his hometown Bruins with two no-look assists to Skinner from behind Boston's net, one laser wrister over goalie Tuukka Rask's short-side shoulder, and an empty-netter that clinched a 4--2 win at TD Garden—the kind of evening when there is no need for Buffalo to worry.

After all, they've got Jack.

EICHEL IS AN AVATAR FOR THE MODERN-DAY, TWO-WAY NHL CENTER, "AS WELL-ROUNDED AS I'VE EVER SEEN," SAYS BOGOSIAN. "YOU CAN'T SAY A BAD THING ABOUT HIS GAME."