March 31, 2014

Jack Eichel is making a case to be the NHL's rookie of the year while giving the Buffalo Sabres hope for the future.

Ryan O'Reilly's expected return should bring some optimism to First Niagara Center right now.

With their top scorer back from injury Wednesday night, Eichel and the Sabres look to avenge last week's loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

Eichel - the No. 2 overall pick last summer - is living up to the lofty expectations. The 19-year-old has a team-high 22 goals, the most by a Sabres rookie since Thomas Vanek had 23 in 2005-06.

Eichel's 48 points are one back O'Reilly for the team lead, but he's 14 behind Chicago's Artemi Panarin for the most among rookies. The two will likely be among the three finalists for the Calder Trophy.

Eichel has five goals and two assists during the last six games. He came through in dramatic fashion Saturday when his second goal came with one second left in overtime of a 3-2 win over Carolina.

"If you don't score, you look like an idiot," Eichel said of his breakaway goal in OT.

Buffalo (28-33-9) will welcome O'Reilly back from a lower-body injury that sidelined him 11 games.

He's expected to join a line with Evander Kane and Nicolas Deslauriers, while coach Dan Bylsma will keep Eichel with Sam Reinhart, who has five points in five games.

"Seeing Sam play well next to Jack has been one of the deciding factors to keeping them together, but Ryan also needs wingers next to him on his line," Bylsma said. "Maybe a little bit of a long-term approach."

The Sabers have won five of the past seven meetings with the Canadiens (32-32-6), but they fell 3-2 at Montreal on Thursday.

Eichel was held without a point in that meeting, and he has only two in four versus Montreal. O'Reilly, though, has 10 points in 10 games against the Habs after getting two assists in a 6-4 win Feb. 12.

The Canadiens have lost six of their last eight games (2-5-1), and they followed Saturday's 4-1 loss to Minnesota with a defeat by the same score to Florida three days later.

P.K. Subban missed both games with a neck injury, and the former Norris Trophy winner didn't travel to Buffalo. The team has been without star goaltender Carey Price (leg) since November, perhaps the biggest blow to a team expected to at least reach the playoffs this season.

Montreal is also without eight other regulars.

"We can't use injuries as an excuse. It's the reality of this league," defenseman Mark Barberio told the team's official website. "Every team has injuries. We're obviously in a rough spell but it can't be an excuse for us. Whatever 20 guys we put out on our lineup, we need to get the job done."

Alex Galchenyuk is doing his part with 12 goals over the last 10 games after netting Montreal's lone goal Tuesday. The 22-year-old center has a career-high 26 on the season, and he's got five in the last three meetings with Buffalo - two in each of the last two.

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