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Eichel making most of 1st postseason as Golden Knights prepare for Panthers in Cup final

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jack Eichel didn’t know what to expect when the NHL playoffs began in April.

He just knew he was eager to experience the postseason for the first time in his eight-year career — and what a time it’s been for him. Eichel is a major reason why the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s where you want to be as a player and (it’s) been taking a few years for me to get here,” Eichel said. “It’s been a great experience. It’s been a lot of fun sharing with the guys in the room, the emotions, winning and moving on.

“Having your family around, getting (to) experience with them, they’ve been with you your whole life.”

Vegas opens the series Saturday against the Florida Panthers. One of Eichel’s former Buffalo teammates, Sam Reinhart, plays for the Panthers.

“He’s such competitor,” Reinhart said of Eichel. “He’s works as hard as anybody on the scene.”

Getting the chance to play in meaningful games was a major reason Eichel wanted to play for the Knights. He didn’t get that opportunity with the Sabres, who drafted him No. 2 overall in 2015 behind Connor McDavid.

But the greater source of friction was the disagreement between Eichel and the Sabres on how to treat his neck injury. Eichel, who had his captaincy removed by the Sabres in September 2021 after failing a physical, wanted a procedure that had never been performed on an NHL player.

The Knights were willing to grant that wish, trading for Eichel in November of that year.

“The motivation was to acquire a No. 1 center,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “One of the things that our scouts really felt strongly about when we acquired Jack that was almost a little bit underappreciated was his competitiveness, and we’ve really seen that. His physical strength and his competitiveness have really been on display in the playoffs.

“Jack was a young captain in Buffalo. Jack gets here in a room full of really, really good leaders. It’s not that we are targeting captains, but we do target real good people, some of whom have been captains.”

Eichel led Vegas with 66 points this season, and his 27 goals were second only to Jonathan Marchessault’s 28. A strong two-way player, he carried that production into the playoffs.

His 18 points are tied for fourth in the league this postseason, and that’s without scoring a goal in the Western Conference Final against Dallas. But Eichel had six goals in the first two rounds, and even against the Stars, came through with a tremendous backhand pass with 2:22 left in regulation of Game 2 to force overtime.

Marchessault was on the receiving end of that pass. Eichel twice looked at him before delivering the assist that stunned the Stars in the Knights’ eventual 3-2 victory.

“He’s a gifted player, so you just want to get open when he has the puck,“ Marchessault said. “I do that pretty well, too, so we’ve built the connection the past few months.”

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said Eichel’s game aligns perfectly with the team’s other centers. Chandler Stephenson and William Karlsson, in particular, have shown similar abilities to win games beyond sticking the puck past the opposing goaltender.

“They’re 200-foot players,“ Cassidy said. ”Will Karlsson’s hot right now, but they’ve all scored and they all can. But they don’t have to for us to be to be good. They check well, they take faceoffs, special teams guys. It allows us to balance our lines. I think it’s one of the biggest reasons we’re here right now.

“Speaking of Jack, I think he was very good in the Dallas series. He had a lot of good looks. Hit a post or two. He’s still making plays all over the ice. Just didn’t finish.”

Maybe Eichel will find that finishing touch against the Panthers and put himself in position to also win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s the third favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and the most likely Knights player.

His ultimate goal is to hold the Stanley Cup, and until this season had never come close, watching from afar while other teams battled it out in the postseason.

“You know how hard it is to get here,“ Eichel said. “For me personally, I realized how hard it was to even make the playoffs.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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