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A day later, Sabres players press on without Eichel

The shock value of seeing Jack Eichel crumpled on the ice Wednesday remained high for the Buffalo Sabres as they met reporters Thursday morning. But there was little time to fret, with just hours to go before the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens.

"It's tough. We're a pretty close group in here," said defenseman Zach Bogosian, the last of several players to help Eichel off the ice after Buffalo's star center suffered a high ankle sprain. "Jack and I are pretty close and whenever you see one of your good buddies go down like that and yell that loud, it's not a fun thing to see. When that happens, you know it's a serious thing.

"It's really unfortunate. He just has to do everything in his power to get back, be healthy and smart and do the right things for it."

Coach Dan Bylsma characterized the injury as a "moderate" high ankle sprain Thursday, but said Eichel will still be out for weeks in the wake of his collision with Zemgus Girgensons during the final minutes of practice in KeyBank Center. Eichel howled in pain at the instant of contact, before hobbling off the ice and getting his discouraging diagnosis later in the day.

"It's pretty disappointing the way it all happened, being close to the end of practice," said winger Evander Kane. "Everybody saw it and it didn't look very good."

"You're not going to make up for him but you can all play your role, do your part and make his impact less felt," added winger and Eichel roommate Sam Reinhart. "It's going to be tough. You hope he recovers fast and we're all going to do our part to support him and help him get back as quick as possible."

Eichel was scheduled to center Kane and Reinhart, and the trio had a strong game while combining for two goals in a 4-2 victory at Ottawa in the preseason finale. The practice accident, coming so close to the season opener, stunned the players.

"I said to myself, 'Jeez, that's my centerman,' " Kane said. "The optics of how it happened and when it happened were definitely more surprising. But that's hockey. It's a competitive environment whether you're practicing or playing. Guys are going hard."

Ryan O'Reilly will now take over in Eichel's slot on Buffalo's top line.

"Guys have to fill different roles," Kane said. "And in that sense, we have a guy in 'Factor' who is a pretty special player in his own right and does a lot of special things so I'm looking forward to playing with him."

"We felt good in our last game for sure. and we felt excited and ready to start tonight," Reinhart said. "But any time you're subsituting O'Reilly in there, you can't be that down with it because he's a heck of a player too."

The Sabres are dealing with plenty of early injuries, as Kyle Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov joined Eichel out of the lineup for the opener. Not an easy spot for a team that has open aspirations of its first playoff berth since 2011.

"Anytime anyone of your teammates gets hurt, it's not fun to see," Bogosian said. "It just gives us another reason to try to bring our level up even more. Jack is a big part of our team. I don't think you can replace Jack, but you have other guys step up and help as much as possible."

Said Kane: "The desperation level to have a good start just heightened a lot more."

mharrington@buffnews.com

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