Monday, June 5, 2023 | 10:04 p.m. | Monday, June 5, 2023 | 10:04 p.m.
Jack Eichel crumbled to the ice, his left leg bent in a way that would sideline any human, and skated to the locker room on his own power.
The force that Florida Panthers star Matthew Tkachuk generated into Eichel was a hit that could’ve changed the complexion of the Stanley Cup Final. From up top, it looked like Eichel’s night was done at least.
But Eichel didn’t just return to the bench for the third period. He once again made an impact like he’s done since his first postseason run began two months ago. His two assists, including the last one to set up Jonathan Marchessault’s goal in the third period, was part of an offensive barrage that led the Golden Knights to a dominant 7-2 run in Game 2 of the Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena on Monday.
The second period ended early for Eichel — about two minutes remaining — when he got leveled by Tkachuk at the defensive blue line. A melee ensued with Ivan Barbashev and Alex Pietrangelo joining Tkachuk and forward Gustav Forsling on the penalty ledger.
Looking live, it didn’t look good for Eichel. He got up from the ice hunched over in pain and darted down the tunnel. Tkachuk was given a 10-minute misconduct as a result.
But Eichel returned for the third. Minutes after the Panthers ended Adin Hill’s shutout 14 seconds in, Eichel won a puck battle along the wall, waited for a wide-open Marchessault to cut down the middle of the ice and score his second goal of the game to make it 5-1.
Eichel said the hit was clean. The only thing bothering him was getting the wind knocked out.
“Just get off the ice and regroup,” Eichel said of what went through his mind after the hit. “Get up and go collect myself, I guess.”
One can imagine the panic it would’ve brought had the Golden Knights headed to Sunrise, Fla., with a 2-0 lead in the Cup Final in tow but without Eichel. Even as a precautionary move to keep him out the third period would’ve been wise.
It’s just another moment that shows what Eichel has become these playoffs.
His defensive game has started to take shape. His evolution as a 200-foot player is on display every game throughout this run. His hustle and commitment to making the little plays has turned him into the player that was touted as one of the best in the league since his NHL arrival in 2015.
Eichel said the hit was on him in that he tripped on his own while trying to get the puck, before Tkachuk’s shoulder leveled him and knocked his helmet off.
“Got to be aware of it,” Eichel said. “Got to keep your head up. I’ll be fine.”
The Conn Smythe Trophy discussion, given to the MVP of the playoffs, changes in the Golden Knights’ favor after every game. Following the Western Conference Final, it was William Karlsson with his goals and shutdown defense. Through two games, it’s been Marchessault with his scoring surge and Hill with his pristine goaltending.
What Eichel has done these playoffs is rare territory. Only seven players since 1943-44 have recorded multipoint games in his first two Stanley Cup Final games. Eichel is the seventh.
His 22 points (six goals, 16 assists) are now the third most ever by a player in his first postseason. Only Jordan Staal (28 points, Carolina, 2006) and Mark Recchi (34 points, Pittsburgh, 1991) have higher totals in their first postseason than Eichel.
“He’s unbelievable,” Marchessault said of Eichel. “That’s the resiliency we have in that locker room, and it starts with your top guys, and it just goes right through the lineup.”
Eichel’s play has rubbed off on Marchessault and Barbashev, his linemates since the playoffs began. Marchessault scored his 11th and 12th goals of the playoffs, giving him 12 in 12 games; he didn’t have a goal in the first seven games.
Barbashev has been the perfect complement as far as playmaking and downhill forechecking are concerned. His 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) are tied with Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson for third most on the team.
“He’s just a really good hockey player,” Barbashev said of Eichel. “When he has space, he does those little things you don’t see often in the National Hockey League.”
There’s also the obvious caveat that Eichel has been this good despite not scoring a goal since Game 5 against Edmonton in the second round. One week from Monday would have been one whole month without finding the back of the net.
Whatever narratives have defined Eichel to this point will be ancient history if the Golden Knights can win two more games. He may not win the Conn Smythe, but to have the distinction as being one of the top scorers on a Stanley Cup-winning team carries plenty of weight.
The series shifts to Sunrise for Game 3 on Thursday (5 p.m., TNT). There is a possibility that the Stanley Cup will be at FLA Live Center later this weekend. The Golden Knights realize the job is far from finished.
Two more wins, and Eichel realizes his dream, and in the process, takes his official place as one of the best in the world.
“We know they’re going to have their best effort the next game. They’re going home. They’re going to have energy,” Eichel said. “We need to match their intensity. It’s going to be a tough match.”