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Five months later, Eichel returns to competitive hockey

QUEBEC CITY -- After a whirlwind first year among NHL players, which actually started during the 2015 World Championships in Prague a month before he was drafted by the Sabres, Jack Eichel has had a long time off from competitive hockey.

A break that spanned nearly five months ends Thursday night in the Videotron Centre with Team North America's World Cup exhibition opener against Team Europe. The game is at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.

"It's been a while for me for sure and we're all pretty excited," Eichel said after today's pregame skate. "There's been a lot of training in the summer and to finally be here and playing a hockey game, we're all excited."

As he has in practice the last three days in Montreal, Eichel will center Team NA's second line with Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau and Columbus' Brandon Saad on his wings. He will also play on the No. 1 power play with Saad, Connor McDavid, Mark Schiefele and Shayne Gostisbehere.

"You can do as much practicing as you want but until you play, it's a lot different," Eichel said. "We're all excited about this game and it will be a good test for us. There's been a lot of practicing and a lot of talking and it will be nice to go out and play."

The talk in the North America locker room was that this was no mere exhibition to get warmed up. The teams meet again Sunday in Montreal, then Team NA plays the Czech Republic Wednesday in Pittsburgh. After that, the tournament begins.

"We're only playing three games in the tournament. We're playing this game to win, we're playing every game to win," Eichel said. "It's a good chance for us to see where we're at as a group. Two games against them and one against the Czechs. Those are three pretty good games for us to prepare. As a group we want to get better every day and this is the next step."

Pittsburgh's Matt Murray will get the start in goal for Team USA and will be opposed by Team Europe's Jaroslav Halak (New York Islanders).  The Europe roster includes former Sabres Thomas Vanek, Andrej Sekera and Christian Ehrhoff.

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