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Eichel injury: Before first puck even drops, season hangs in the balance

It's your nightmare scenario. Jack Eichel on the ice, howling in pain as he goes down.

One day before the season opener? One day before the Sabres begin a year where they actually think they could make a run to the playoffs? Did that really just happen?

It was hard to believe your eyes late Wednesday morning in KeyBank Center. One reason is that Eichel virtually never took a hard hit his entire rookie season. He missed one game, and that was because of food poisoning.

But now the minds of everyone in the building were racing as Eichel howled in pain after a freak collision with Zemgus Girgensons. Coach Dan Bylsma confirmed it was an ankle injury and Eichel would need deeper evaluation Wednesday.

Goaltender Robin Lehner missed three months last year with a high ankle sprain suffered in the second period of the season opener. The Sabres confirmed later Wednesday afternoon this was in fact the same injury, no surprise given that we saw Eichel leaving the ice putting no weight on his foot.

 

The team offered no timetable, although 4-6 weeks seems to be the going rate. A three-month absence isn't likely because Eichel isn't a goalie and Lehner was in the 240-pound range last year.

But can the Sabres withstand such a long-term loss of their star player? No chance. Under that scenario, that would be season over before it starts.

Bylsma looked understandably shellshocked as he met reporters after practice. He tried to put on a brave face but it wasn't easy. Even he admitted this wasn't like someone getting hurt in the middle of the season. To come the day before the opener is tough to accept.

"It's the cusp, the eve of starting a new season, one I think we're all looking forward to," Bylsma said. "That's really why it takes the wind out of the sails in the arena today. ... We're eight minutes away from practice being over and getting ready for a game tomorrow and that happens. It kind of takes a little chunk out of the team."

Bylsma said he knew the players were shocked right away. The arena fell quiet for the final couple minutes of practice. No chatter, not much hard skating.

"I think we all felt it on the ice," Bylsma said. "We were having a good practice, a lot of jump and enthusiasm in practice and that happened and took the wind out of the arena a little bit and the wind out of the guys a little bit. At that point in time you could probably slap them in the face to say, 'snap out of it' but everyone's thoughts are with the injury and with the extent of it."

Bylsma tried to say the Sabres are not just Eichel or for that matter Ryan O'Reilly, in another example he used. He's right but what exactly are the Sabres without Eichel? He's the fulcrum, the guy to lead the offense. The guy who sells tickets and jerseys. The guy every out-of-town reporter comes to talk to.

And now both Eichel and Kyle Okposo, the big free agent signee, will miss Thursday's opener here against Montreal with Eichel's return nowhere in sight. O'Reilly, meanwhile, is limited by back trouble. At least Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are back from their injuries. It has not been a good camp on the injury front and there's no blaming the World Cup of Hockey.

When Connor McDavid went down in Edmonton last year with his collarbone injury, he was out three months and the Oilers were toast. Lo and behold, the Sabres are in Edmonton Sunday for what is a nationally televised game in Canada, the second game ever in the Oilers' new Rogers Place. And like the meeting that McDavid missed last year in Rexall Place, there will be no McEichel matchup in Edmonton for the second straight year.

The question now is how much time Eichel misses. And how this franchise withstands his absence.

"You just hope it's nothing serious," said defenseman Josh Gorges. "None of us have any idea what actually happened. It really just happened. You just cross your fingers and hope."

And that's pretty much where every Sabres fan was when the news broke Wednesday. Crossing their toes too. But the word wasn't good. Terrible start to a highly anticipated season.

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