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Loss of Eichel leaves holes in Sabres' stats, confidence level

The loss of Jack Eichel goes beyond numbers, though those are significant enough on their own. It's also about the feeling he gives the Buffalo Sabres who are on the ice with him.

Confidence.

Eichel's trademark is his arms-up goal celebration, but a more common sight is the center controlling the puck. Few players in the NHL – if any – can enter a zone like Eichel. He attacks the blue line, crosses over and sets up shop. As he plays keep-away with the opponent, he gives his linemates time to find space.

"Just the speed he has, the confidence he has with the puck translates and kind of gives us confidence," right wing Sam Reinhart said Sunday. "To kind of see how he plays and how he holds onto the puck and does some things, it obviously helps my game as well."

The Sabres will be without that for the foreseeable future. Eichel suffered a right high-ankle sprain Saturday, and the initial estimate is four to six weeks of recovery time. It's an area of the body that's susceptible to setbacks, however.

"He's our best player and impacts the game so much," center Ryan O'Reilly said in KeyBank Center. "It's going to be a tough road without him."

The Sabres went through it last season, and it wasn't pretty. Eichel missed the opening 21 games with the same injury to the opposite ankle, and the team averaged a paltry 1.8 goals per outing. Buffalo is already last in the NHL this season at 2.33, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see that drop.

"We know the firepower is down, but we have to stay confident that we can score goals and put the puck in the net," O'Reilly said. "It is a big loss that way, but the opportunity is there. We're confident in each other that we can still get this done."

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The trickle-down effect on the Sabres will be substantial. The opponents' shutdown players usually line up against Eichel. Now they'll focus on O'Reilly. Evan Rodrigues excelled as Eichel's winger last week. He's now back at center and will have to anchor a line.

"It's unfortunate, but it's something we can rally around," coach Phil Housley said. "Guys are going to get opportunities, get more ice time, so they've got to take advantage of that."

Evander Kane stepped in for Eichel on the Sabres' top power-play unit Sunday against Colorado, but there's no telling how long he'll be around. The trade deadline is in two weeks.

Until Eichel returns, there could be a lot of mixing and matching for Housley.

"It's not one guy that you can ask to cover something that he does on a daily basis," Reinhart said. "It's just not going to happen. It just takes a little bit from everyone. It's not one or two goals from one guy. It's not five or six blocked shots from another guy. It's a little bit that kind of accumulates throughout the rest of the lineup."

Still, there's no doubt the attention will head toward O'Reilly, Reinhart and Kane.

"A lot of us have to step up now," O'Reilly said. "I myself have to be a lot better, and we all have to bring a bit more. … But we're going to fight for creativity on offense. It's going to be more difficult, but it's doing the right things: getting to the front of the net, getting pucks through and winning those battles."

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As for the numbers, the Sabres are in trouble. Eichel leads the team in goals (22), assists (31) and points (53). Heading into Sunday's schedule, he was tied for 20th in the NHL in goals and points.

The center has been the Sabres' offensive catalyst lately, totaling 15 goals, 19 assists and 34 points in the previous 30 games. The center ranked in the top 10 in the NHL in goals (tied for seventh) and points (tied for fifth) during that stretch.

"He's elite," O'Reilly said. "He's in that elite company in the NHL. He's just outskating guys and creating these plays that open so much on the ice. It's tough to explain. It's beyond what a lot of us can do."

What they can do, they're going to have to do better.

"Like I said, it's just going to take a little bit from everybody and no one trying to do too much," Reinhart said. "If you get that, no one's really on the same page. It's just going to be an effort from everyone."

Eichel missed seven weeks with the injury last season. Only eight weeks remain this year.

"Just from my perspective, he seems a lot better than it was last year," said Reinhart, who is Eichel's roommate. "I saw him kind of work day-by-day last year. I will say that to see him kind of moving around last night, it seemed like a long time before he was able to do that last year. In my mind that's optimism, and I know it's in his mind as well.

"At the same time, it's an injury where you don't want to force it. He knows that. He's fully aware of that, so I think he's going to have a better sense this year of what he needs to do to get himself back and ready to play."

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