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Without injured Eichel, Sabres have big challenge awaiting

It seemed so innocent. Jack Eichel was merely turning to get a loose puck.

Now all heck has broken loose. How quickly the Sabres calm things down could determine the 2016-17 season – and it hasn’t even started yet.

Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain Wednesday, troubling news that could easily keep the star out until Thanksgiving. Buffalo had built its forward depth to a point where it could compete for the playoffs, but the absence of Eichel is a blow of the highest magnitude.

The worst part is he won’t be the only impact forward sidelined Thursday when Montreal visits KeyBank Center.

Right wing Kyle Okposo, the marquee summer signing, will sit out the season opener with a bruised knee. Ryan O’Reilly also could miss the game with an ailment to his back and midsection. Even if the center plays, he’ll be limited.

The Sabres hoped the most unforgettable noise in their arena this week would be the applause of fans welcoming them back. Instead, it’ll be Eichel yelling in agony.

“You kind of felt right away that it wasn’t that good,” goaltender Anders Nilsson said. “You could see he was in a lot of pain.”

The Sabres were nearing the end of their power-play drills when Eichel went down in front of the net. He turned to get the puck, but his left skate didn’t. As he fell to the ice and writhed in pain, all other noise in the arena ceased. Stunned teammates could only stare or wave for an athletic trainer.

“It’s Jack Eichel, so it’s tough,” left wing Marcus Foligno said. “You never want to see that happen to anyone, but especially a player who means so much to your team.”

With Eichel unable to put weight on his left leg, two teammates helped him off the ice. The rest of the players encircled the 19-year-old and slowly glided along with him.

They hope it wasn’t a funeral procession for their season.

“This just feels a little bit different because it’s the cusp and the eve of starting a new season, one we’re all looking forward to,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “It kind of takes a little chunk out of the team in that situation. It’s one we’re going to have to deal with whatever the extent of the injury is.

“Our team is not just Jack Eichel. It’s not just Ryan O’Reilly. It’s not just one player.”

This is, however, the one player the Sabres could least afford to be without. He was expected to lead the team in points during his second season. He’s also the team’s identity. Buffalo could stack up with any NHL team down the middle with Eichel and O’Reilly in the lineup.

When the Sabres take the ice for the opener, their centers could be Derek Grant, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and a minor-league call-up. It’s also possible the Sabres shift Sam Reinhart from right wing to center, the position he played in junior hockey. That would allow right wing prospect Hudson Fasching to move up the roster.

No matter the lineup, it’s not the same without Eichel.

“That’s a huge piece of the team,” Foligno said. “It’s unfortunate right before the regular season kicks off. You want to start off on the right foot.”

It’s the left foot that’s bothering Eichel. It typically takes 45 days for hockey players to recover from a high-ankle sprain, according to multiple medical studies, so that would leave Eichel sidelined through Nov. 25. He would miss 20 games, essentially one-quarter of the season.

The Sabres did not give an initial timeline in announcing the diagnosis. Goaltender Robin Lehner suffered a high-ankle sprain last year and missed 10 weeks, then needed season-ending surgery after the injury flared up when he returned.

Since goaltenders use their ankles differently than forwards, examples involving skaters could be more accurate:

*Kyle Palmieri suffered a high-ankle sprain in September 2014. Anaheim initially said he could miss two weeks, but he missed two months.

*Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby suffered a high-ankle sprain Jan. 18, 2008. He returned March 4 after missing six weeks.

*Dallas’ Trevor Daley suffered the injury Dec. 5, 2013. He missed four weeks, returning Jan. 6, 2014.

*Toronto’s Colby Armstrong left a game Oct. 26, 2010, with a high-ankle sprain. He didn’t play again until Dec. 4, a span of six weeks.

Eichel has never missed any games because of injury, so how well he heals is unknown. What is known is the Sabres will miss him.

“It’s just an unlucky incident,” Nilsson said. “Hopefully, it’s not too bad, but it sure didn’t look that good.”

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