The Buffalo Sabres got a pleasant surprise during practice Monday when captain Jack Eichel joined the group.
It was the first time the center skated with his teammates since sustaining an upper-body injury in the first period against the New York Islanders on Dec. 31. His status for the game Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils is unknown. Buffalo coach Phil Housley said they’ll know more on Tuesday.
“At this point, it’s just sort of taking it every day, seeing how I feel,” Eichel said. “If you can just get a little better every day, it’s positive so for me, it’s been that sort of thing. Everything I can do to try to get back and help the team as soon as possible, I want to do. But that being said, obviously, you don’t want to rush things and put yourself behind.”
Eichel said it hasn’t been easy to be sidelined.
“It kills me to not be out there, it kills me not to be playing, it kills me not be hanging out with these guys every day, competing,” he said. “The hardest part about it is just the mental aspect and not being able to get out there and do it. But it feels good to practice today. … [I’m] feeling like myself again.”
Eichel joined the practice about 20 minutes in, wearing a regular jersey. He mixed into drills but wasn’t on a line. He stayed on the ice with a rehab coach after practice.
“Him just coming back, getting the OK to practice was a good sign,” Housley said.
The Sabres are 1-1 in Eichel’s absence, defeating the Florida Panthers on Thursday and losing to the Boston Bruins on Saturday. They’re 5-9-3 in their past 17 games after their 10-game winning streak Nov. 8-Nov. 27.
With the loss to Boston and the Islanders’ win against the St. Louis Blues, Buffalo dropped to the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, tied with the Islanders with 50 points and one point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens. The Sabres are fourth in the Atlantic Division, two points behind the Bruins and six behind the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Nothing’s changed from the mindset that we’ve had from the beginning of the year,” Eichel said. “Every game means a lot for us with how tight the race is, and everyone seems to be getting points every night.”
Eichel leads the Sabres with 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists). He had 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in the 23 games since his line with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart began playing together Nov. 13. The Sabres were 12-7-4 during that stretch; at least one of the three scored in all but four of those games.
Reinhart was sick and missed practice Monday.
There’s been some contribution from secondary scoring of late, with forwards Kyle Okposo and Tage Thompson ending long goal droughts and Johan Larsson and defenseman Marco Scandella also getting on the scoresheet.
“It’s not an easy league to score in, by any means,” Eichel said. “It’s good that guys are chipping in; it’s just that we need more from everyone every night because every team’s bringing more every night.
“It’s getting more and more competitive, and that’s just how the season goes. As the season amps up, I think we’ve got to amp ourselves up too. I think that we’re ready for the challenge, we’ve just got to commit to it.”