Young stars on display when Panthers visit Sabres

NHL Hockey
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When the Florida Panthers visit the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday afternoon, there will be some elite talent on display.

Start with Panthers center and captain Aleksander Barkov, the NHL’s second overall pick in 2013. Barkov, rated by Hockey News as the NHL’s eighth-best player (regardless of position), has 13 goals and is second on the Panthers with 45 points.

“He is a cornerstone of our franchise,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon recently told reporters of Barkov, who was named an All-Star for the first time last season. “He’s among the game’s most exceptional two-way players.”

The matchup between Barkov, 24, and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, 23, is intriguing.

Like Barkov, Eichel is a center and the team captain. Like Barkov, Eichel was the No. 2 overall pick in his draft year (2015). And like Barkov, Eichel is productive, accumulating 54 points.

Eichel already has 26 goals — just two shy of matching his career high. Eichel has 40 games left this season to add to his totals.

As it happens, Buffalo and Eichel are coming off a big 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. Eichel had the winning goal in overtime, scoring on a penalty shot.

“I’m glad Jack took the penalty shot and not me,” Sabres teammate Curtis Lazar told reporters.

Indeed, after going 1-for-10 on shootouts/penalty shots in his first three seasons in the NHL, Eichel is 6-for-11 in those situations over the past two seasons.

Eichel also has seven overtime goals in his career, setting the Sabres franchise record.

Beyond Barkov and Eichel, there are other top talents on these two rosters.

For Buffalo, there’s center Sam Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft; defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a 19-year-old who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018; and Jeff Skinner, who was acquired in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes two summers ago.

Reinhart has 32 points after posting a career-high 65 last season. Dahlin has 21 points after posting 44 as a rookie last season. Skinner has 11 goals after posting a career-high 40 last season. Skinner, however, is out due to an upper-body injury.

For Florida, defenseman Aaron Ekblad was the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 and has put up 23 points so far; winger Jonathan Huberdeau was the No. 3 overall pick in 2011; and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky — a free agent signee in July — was ranked the No. 2 goalie in the NHL by Hockey News entering this season.

Of those three, Huberdeau has had the best season so far. He leads the Panthers in goals (17), assists (38) and points (55).

On Jan. 25, Huberdeau will play in his first NHL All-Star Game. He was also the league’s “First Star” in December, compiling six goals and 16 assists in the month. His 1.69 points per game led the NHL in December.

With six more points, Huberdeau would break Olli Jokinen’s franchise record for career points (419).

Bobrovsky is 15-11-4 with a 3.28 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage.

Buffalo’s top goalie is Linus Ullmark, who had 25 saves on Thursday as the Sabres broke a four-game losing streak. He is 12-11-3 this season with a 2.86 GAA and a .910 save percentage.

Besides Skinner, Buffalo has other injury concerns, including rookie winger Victor Olofsson, who suffered an apparent leg injury on Thursday. He ranks second on the Sabres in goals (16), assists (19) and points (35) and is already a two-time winner of the NHL’s Rookie of the Month award.

To aid to their forward depth, the Sabres acquired winger Michael Frolik on Thursday from the Calgary Flames.

Buffalo has beaten Florida in the teams’ only two matchups this season, 3-2 in a shootout on Oct. 11 and 5-2 on Nov. 24.

–Field Level Media

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