Eichel wins Stanley Cup with Golden Knights less than two years since neck surgery
Jack Eichel is a Stanley Cup champion with the Vegas Golden Knights less than two years removed from neck surgery that no NHL player had previously come back from.
It's a triumphant moment for a player whose career was derailed by the injury and became a trailblazer for the operation he credits for fixing it.
The 26-year-old Eichel was the team’s best all-around player during the playoffs, the first-line center Vegas executives knew they needed to win the franchise’s first championship. He finished with a postseason-best 26 points in 22 games and drove a lot of the play offensively and defensively.
“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,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said before the final. “And we’ve really seen that. His physical strength and his competitiveness have really been on display in the playoffs.”
Eichel has arguably been underappreciated since being drafted second overall by Buffalo in 2015 behind Connor McDavid. McCrimmon said that while Eichel didn’t have the chance to show what he could do in meaningful, clutch situations during six losing seasons with the Sabres, there was belief organizationally that the smooth-skating, 6-foot-2 playmaker could get the job done.
He set up three goals in the 9-3 rout of the Panthers in Game 5 on Tuesday night that gave Vegas the Cup.
“This is what everyone dreams of," Eichel said. “You come to an organization like this and the expectation is to win this thing. It’s a special place to play.”
The Golden Knights initially trusted Eichel to undergo a type of neck surgery no other NHL player had gotten and returned from. They acquired him from the Sabres in a blockbuster trade in November 2021 and gave him permission to undergo an artificial disk replacement.
Eichel missed three months before getting back into game action, becoming the poster boy for the operation, which other players like Chicago’s Tyler Johnson and Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee have since had.
“It’s a more common injury than you think, and it’s a good way to resolve that injury,” Eichel said before the season.
Eichel was a point-a-game player in helping Vegas finish atop the Western Conference. The Massachusetts native was at his best during some big games in the playoffs, showing a side of his 200-foot game that often gets overlooked.
“The way we want to play, the the center has got a lot of responsibility in our D-zone, and he’s great for us,” forward William Carrier said. “I mean, he finishes checks, he’s hard to play (against) and he’s super fast, so he’s really tough to beat.”
And really tough, too. One of Eichel’s signature moments on this run came in Game 2 of the final against Florida, when he was leveled by Matthew Tkachuk on a crushing, open-ice hit, left briefly and returned to set up the fifth goal of seven in a rout of the Panthers.
Eichel personified the team’s playoff mantra that “it hurts to win,” drawing praise from teammates and coach Bruce Cassidy for bouncing back.
“That’s hockey,” Cassidy said. “It’s OK to get hit in June. This is part of the journey. It hurts to win, and it’s not supposed to be easy. Good for him.”
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