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Graney: T-Mobile Arena welcomes Jack Eichel in thunderous fashion

Updated February 17, 2022 - 10:09 am

The only thing missing was a tribute video.

We know Jack Eichel played his first game for the Golden Knights on Wednesday night because he wasn’t wearing one of those oft-colored no-contact jerseys he has been sporting lately. Seemingly everything except bright orange.

They decided to give him a real one, and the most anticipated debut of an already established star in some time finally arrived. Yeah. It’s true. He actually played some before this.

The Knights would fall to Colorado 2-0 with Eichel as his team’s top-line center in a matchup of two of the Western Conference’s best sides.

Nothing has changed. Give us another playoff series between these two.

Big-time welcome

Eichel was welcomed as you might expect — with a thunderous ovation from a T-Mobile Arena crowd of 18,209 holding posters with messages scrawled across them. The place was its usual crazy loud for him.

And that was just in warmups.

He appeared like a player who hadn’t been in a competitive atmosphere in nearly a year. Took a penalty for interference in the first period. It was really his first noticeable action. Took another in the second for high sticking.

He finished with one shot on goal.

“You’re always looking to establish and tweak that identity of your team depending on personnel,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “Game situations are a reflection of timing. But he’s a high-end player, so he’ll adapt and get up to speed pretty quickly.”

Eichel was acquired from Buffalo in November and was the first hockey player to undergo artificial disk replacement surgery on his neck. From there, it was about intense rehab and raising his fitness level.

About making sure he could endure and stand up to the physicality of an NHL game. About knowing he could take a hit and not crumble.

The Knights were able to activate him and not make any major roster moves once winger Mark Stone and his $9.5 million salary went to long-term injured reserve this week because of a recurring back injury. It freed up enough cap space for Eichel’s $10 million hit.

Eyes were predictably raised across the NHL. Too bad.

Rules are rules, and if you don’t like them, change them. Stone is seriously injured. If he comes off LTIR before the playoffs — during which there is no salary cap — the Knights will have to adjust and make those tough roster decisions.

If not, they’re merely playing the game by the statute set forth. It’s the same for everyone. Deal with it.

Karlsson’s thoughts

William Karlsson gets it. He missed several weeks with a broken foot this season. He knows about any sort of extended layoff. Not near as long as Eichel, but enough to have an idea about what it takes to come back.

Karlsson said it really isn’t about Eichel regaining his touch. Not about his hands or feet or instincts. Those will return quickly. It’s mostly about the system.

Eichel hadn’t played with this group. Doesn’t know their tendencies yet. Isn’t familiar with much about them.

“This guy has been out for 11 months and joining us midseason,” Knights coach Pete DeBoer said. “He’s a special player. I have no doubt he’s going to return to a really high level. How long that takes, I don’t know.

“We all have to take a deep breath and let him get through the first game and start to work toward the player he’s going to be for us.”

Jack Eichel took his first shift Wednesday, skated off healthy and his time with the Golden Knights was underway.

The crowd went wild. He looked all sorts of rusty thereafter.

But imagine what he would have done in a bright orange jersey.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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