Jack Eichel Jersey

Jack Eichel Jersey

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.”

Wholesale Buffalo Sabres Jersey

Sabres forward Evander Kane doesn’t need a fortune teller to understand he’s down to his final days in Buffalo when acknowledging he expects to be dealt before the NHL’s trading deadline on Monday.

“Yeah, if that’s the answer you guys are waiting for,” Kane told reporters following practice Wednesday. “I’m not going to get into what’s been talked about or what hasn’t been talked about, but I think you guys are all pretty smart hockey people.”

The only uncertainty for Kane is when the trade will take place and where he’ll be headed.

“I think the hardest part is the unknown,” Kane said, in preparing to join the Sabres for a two-game road trip starting at Detroit on Thursday. “I’m going to play as hard as I possibly can tomorrow night. And then once the move is made, then we can reflect for that day. But I’ve got a job to do.”

The 26-year-old is expendable for a variety of reasons, starting with his contract which runs out after this season. The Sabres are rebuilding under a new regime, headed by first-year general manager Jason Botterill, and the team has expressed no interest in re-signing Kane, who is expected to command a hefty price tag in free agency this summer.

Kane’s 19 goals in 60 games rank second in Buffalo. He’s scored 20 or more in each of his previous two years since being acquired by the Sabres in a multi-player trade with Winnipeg in February 2015.

The 26-year-old is in his ninth NHL season after being selected No. 4 by the then-Atlanta Thrashers in the 2009 draft.

Kane and New York Rangers forward Rick Nash are considered the two top players available on the trade market with the NHL playoff races entering the stretch run.

The Sabres are on the outside looking in. They sit last in the East and are all but mathematically assured of extending their longest playoff drought to a seventh season.

Also on the block in Buffalo are goalie Robin Lehner, forward Benoit Pouliot and defenseman Josh Gorges, all of whom are in the final year of their contracts.

Coach Phil Housley is braced for a roster shake up and focused solely on preparing his team to play.

“Number 1 is getting ready for Detroit,” Housley said. “That’s what we control is to get our players ready. And Jason (Botterill) is going to do the best job he can moving forward here.”

Kane’s pending departure marks a dramatic setback for a franchise that under former GM Tim Murray pinned its hopes on him being part of its long-term future after finishing last in both 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.

Murray dealt defenseman Tyler Myers, forward Drew Stafford, two prospects and a first-round pick in acquiring Kane, defenseman Zach Bogosian and prospect goalie Jason Kasdorf. And it made no difference to Murray that Kane would miss the final two months of the season after having shoulder surgery.

Though Kane has produced on the ice when healthy and been active in working with Buffalo-area charitable groups, he has been questioned for his immaturity off the ice.

Kane has had two legal run-ins, including being arrested for grabbing three women by the hair and neck during an altercation at a Buffalo bar in June 2016. The charges were eventually dismissed on condition Kane stayed out of trouble as part of a plea agreement in which a prosecutor described the player’s behavior as “arrogant, boorish and surly, but not criminal.”

Earlier in the year, the Sabres suspended Kane for one game for missing practice a day after pictures surfaced on social media of the player celebrating in Toronto after attending the NBA All-Star Game.

Kane has been inconsistent this season. After scoring 15 goals and 18 assists in his first 35 games, he has just four goals and two assists in his past 25.

Game notes

Center Jack Eichel was spotted carrying a stick and walking without a protective boot for the first time since spraining his right ankle in a 4-2 win at Boston on Feb. 10. Housley had no update on Eichel’s status. … G Robin Lehner will start against Detroit after missing one game with a hip injury.