Jack Eichel scored during a power play, and his teammates tapped their sticks. He scored during a line rush with Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, and they smiled near the boards. Eichel scored during a shootout drill, and coach Dan Bylsma’s imagination flickered.
It’s true that one player doesn’t make a team. But one player can make a team feel a whole lot better about itself. Eichel proved that Monday.
The Sabres star practiced fully in KeyBank Center, putting him in position to make his season debut Tuesday in Ottawa. Though no one came right out and said he’ll be in the lineup, the signs were positive and the hurdles were out of the way.
“I’ve cleared them all,” Eichel said. “All I can say is I felt good.”
The center’s skills are enough to make teammates and fans giddy. It’s his mere presence that makes Bylsma happy.
If opponents decide to put their best defenders on Eichel, it frees up room for Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson. In turn, that gives lesser defenders to the consistent trio of Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta.
The trickle-down effect is what a goal-starved team needs.
“It’s not even one player and it’s not even one line benefiting from it,” Bylsma said. “Everyone’s going to benefit from him getting back into the lineup.”
The immediate effect was obvious. There was lightness on the ice, more smiles in the dressing room. The Sabres have been in a funk, but the malaise disappeared with Eichel around. Bylsma termed it “relief.”
“It just brings a little more confidence to the group, a little more positive attitude,” Foligno said. “We lost something definitely when he got injured. Now we have that piece of the puzzle back. It’s a big piece.
“He’s a phenomenal player, someone that can just do something singlehandedly. We have the skill in here, but other teams have that individual talent, and that’s something we were missing when Jack went down.”
Barring a setback – and he hasn’t had any yet – Eichel will return right on time. It’s been almost seven weeks since he suffered a high-ankle sprain the day before the season opener. The injury was scheduled to take him out for 6-8 weeks.
“This is the toughest part, right?” Eichel said. “I mean, you’ve sat out for as long as you have. Now that you’re getting this close to it, you feel like you can go any day now. The patience is starting to wear thin, but you’ve got to make sure you’re being smart.
“You just want to get back to playing. That’s what you trained for all summer. You prepared for it, and it’s tough that the season starts a little bit later for me. I’m just excited for it.”
Eichel’s sly smiles and causal interactions said more than his words did. Gionta’s locker is near Eichel’s stall. The captain half-jokingly asked the media-relations staff to move Eichel’s chat to the conference room to relieve the crowding.
“I’m trying to get some attention,” Eichel shot back. “I’ve been sitting in my house for months.”
In addition to his off-ice skills, Eichel is one of the Sabres’ comedians. That can’t be overlooked when a team is struggling during a back-to-back or grinding through four games in six days.
“He lightens the room,” Foligno said. “He brings another energy, another buzz to it.”
Eichel is ready to be part of it.
“These are my best buddies,” he said. “These are my teammates, so you like to go through adversity with them and be able to play.
“Not being able to do that has been pretty tough, but now that I’m getting back in the swing of things I think it’s been a little bit better.”
It was a long time coming, but Bylsma finally got to see the power-play unit he envisioned during the summer. O’Reilly skated with Reinhart and Okposo up front, while Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen worked the blue line.
“That’s a power play we never got to practice in preseason,” Bylsma said. “Those are the guys we want on the ice and the unit we want to put out there. Those are some reps for Jack to get in that spot, feel comfortable in those spots.
“Hopefully, we see him in those spots soon.”
Considering the Sabres didn’t bring any extra forwards on the flight to Ottawa, they should see Eichel in those spots Tuesday.
“He’s a game-breaker,” Gionta said. “He can open up the game at any point in time. There’s not many guys that can do that. When the game’s not going your way, he can take over and make something happen.”