Jack Eichel had a grueling workout on his first day back at practice with the Buffalo Sabres, skating with the team over both rinks Tuesday in HarborCenter. How his injured ankle responds to the 75-minute practice will tell the tale of when he'll return to the lineup.
"It was good. I'm obviously excited to be back with the team," Eichel said. "The toughest thing about being injured is not being on the ice with them every day and not spending that quality time you enjoy so much. You enjoy being back out there practicing and getting the battle in. That's the stuff you miss when you're injured."
"It was a pretty good practice. There was a lot of pace to it," said coach Phil Housley. "You could tell he's been off for a while. Halfway through, three-quarter way through the practice I thought he looked really good. As the practice went on, you could see and tell he's been off the ice for a long time."
Eichel has missed the last 14 games after suffering a high-ankle sprain, his second in two years, during a collision in the Feb. 10 win at Boston with Bruins defenseman and former Boston University teammate Matt Grzelcyk. Neither Housley nor Eichel would commit to a return Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Sabres' next game after that is Saturday afternoon against Chicago.
"I don't really know. I don't want to put a timetable or pick a specific game," Eichel said. "I'd like to play as quickly as I can. It's more about how I feel and how my ankle reacts to practice today, how it feels tomorrow, how I feel physically. Mentally, you're back already obviously."
"He just had a tough practice with some contact," Housley said. "We'll see how he reacts after today, evaluate it tomorrow and just take it day to day."
Eichel took part in all drills, centering a line between Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville and playing his regular role on the power play.
The Sabres are 6-6-2 without Eichel in the lineup and, even if Thursday is not the night, it's clear that Eichel will return at some point during the club's current six-game homestand. Buffalo was 7-9-4 last year when Eichel was out after suffering his ankle injury in practice the day before the season opener.
"I was obviously frustrated and mentally it wears on you that you're not playing, you're not out there competing with them every night," Eichel said. "To have this happen again, I'd like to think that everything is preventable. But looking at it, it's a freak accident. I'm probably a little bit lucky it was only an ankle sprain. It probably could have been something a lot more severe with the way I fell. This is a contact sport. It's very physical and things like that happen."