It was this time last year when Robin Lehner dropped in his goal crease during the Buffalo Sabres season opener. He was unable to put weight on his ankle and needed assistance to skate off the ice.
Lehner can feel Jack Eichel’s pain. Literally.
The Sabres superstar-in-the-making center went down in practice on Wednesday, the day before the season opener. And as Lehner prepared to take the net against the Montreal Canadiens in KeyBank Center Thursday morning, hoping to put his injury behind him, there was still plenty of talk of his old nemesis – the high-ankle sprain.
“Well, I don’t know exactly what he has but I don’t think it’s as bad as mine was,” Lehner said when asked about Eichel’s injury. “In the beginning it’s just taking of yourself. Relaxing. You don’t want to do things too early in this thing because you might shoot yourself in the foot a little bit. We have good people and personnel here. He’s a young guy. He obviously has some natural born talents here. You never know. He might go a little faster. Hopefully it doesn’t take too long.”
Circumstances were different for Lehner. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma characterized Eichel’s injury as “moderate” while Lehner’s sprain last year was more severe. It kept him sidelined for 50 games, in part because the goaltender was overeager to get back on the ice.
“I just think I went a little too early and started doing stuff too early and it kind of set me back a little bit,” Lehner said. “I just think we all learn from our mistakes. I think everyone has and you have to be very careful with Eichel.”
Very careful and very patient. A high ankle sprain is a mysterious and frustrating injury.
“You’d rather break a leg. You’d rather break your bone. It’s more clear cut,” Lehner said. “When it’s a high-ankle sprain, like I said I don’t know his details but for me I tore a lot of ligaments and tendons and you’ve got to let them heal back and there’s a lot of scar tissue. Getting mobility back and those things. If you break something you might just lose muscle mass and you let the bone heal up. But you know, I heard good stuff so it’s going to take his time, certainly we’re going to miss him but it’s going to be fine.”
Forward Tyler Ennis dealt with a high ankle sprain in 2011, missing extra time because he came back early and aggravated the ankle.
“It’s frustrating,” Ennis said of the high ankle sprain rehabilitation process. “Some days you feel really good and the wrong thing can aggravate it a little bit. The way the game is now we’ve got a lot of science behind everything. We’ve got a great staff and Jack will be well taken care of.”
For Lehner, the injury is behind him. He felt he moved well although there were goals he definitely wanted back in Thursday's 4-1 loss to the Canadiens. Like that first goal where Brendan Gallagher used defenseman Josh Gorges as a screen to get a low shot past Lehner.
"I caught it late," Lehner said of that first goal. "Goalies say 'bad goal, good shot.' It was a little in between.
"It felt OK. I would like to have the first one back but it felt like I moved well. They got a few bounces I think. I think we dictated play for big periods of time but then they came on rushes. They’ve got a lot of skill and we’ve got to learn from our mistakes."
Matt Moulson scored the only goal of the night for the Sabres, putting home a sick pass from Sam Reinhart, who was behind the Montreal net on the power play and fed Moulson from a ridiculous angle.
"You want to win games and whatever you can do to help this team win," Moulson said. "That was just a great play by Sam on the goal. He’s an unbelievable player and he's going to make good plays like that. ... You’ve got to be ready when he has it."
The goal just 35 seconds into the third period brought the Sabres within a 2-1 margin.
"It's certainly big for his confidence," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of Moulson, who scored just eight goals last season. "I thought at that point in time that we were coming back in that game and that was a big goal to get us back there. ... I thought we were coming back at that point in time and were going to turn the game into our favor."
With his goal, Moulson has a point in each of his last three games dating back to last season and four goals in his last seven regular-season games.
Ryan O'Reilly was back in familiar territory, leading all Sabres' forwards in minutes played. But he was held back in one crucial area of his game -- faceoffs.
Returning from a preseason back injury, O'Reilly took just 11 faceoffs, going 9-2 (82 percent) in the game. Derek Grant ended up taking 18 faceoffs, going 9-9. Fewer faceoffs were the plan for O'Reilly heading into the game to prevent him from aggravating his back.
"Super cautious," Bylsma said of the approach to using O'Reilly. "He’s a guy who wants to do everything, will do everything. ... He’s going to be a guy who wants to jump in there. You do have to put the reins on him a little bit."
For his part, O'Reilly understood the need for restraint.
"I’m not going to take as many as I normally do but still I feel strong," O'Reilly said. "I could probably do it but it’s just a long season. If this were the Stanley Cup Finals I’m sure I’d be taking every one I possibly could but right now let’s make sure it feels good and ease back into it and not overdue it right away."
O'Reilly led the team last season taking 1,812 faceoffs, which ranked fourth in the NHL.
The Sabres have the same official leadership group as last year. Brian Gionta is the team captain while O'Reilly and Josh Gorges are alternates. ... Scratched on Thursday for the Sabres were Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov. Montreal scratched Zach Redmond, Brian Flynn and Sven Andrighetto.