Angry and frustrated. That's how Jack Eichel says he's felt for the last month watching the Buffalo Sabres go on without him as he dealt with his second severe ankle sprain in two years.
"It's a tough thing to go through. It's not an easy injury to come back from," Eichel said Tuesday after returning to practice with the club in HarborCenter. "I'm a bit frustrated with getting hurt again. You want to be in the lineup as much as possible. You want to be playing. You want to be around the guys every day. 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 was injured during a freak collision with Boston Bruins defenseman and former Boston University teammate Matt Grzelcyk during the Sabres' Feb. 10 win in TD Garden. He went down awkwardly, initially appearing to do major damage to his right knee, and hobbled off the ice. The ankle injury was diagnosed after an MRI the next day.
"To have this happen again, I'd like to think that everything is preventable. But looking at it, it's a freak accident," Eichel said. "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."
Eichel, 21, continues to lead the team in goals (22) and points (53) despite missing 14 games. He was a full participant in Tuesday's 75-minute workout that was one of the team's longest of the season and utilized both HarborCenter rinks. Eichel took part in all drills, centering a line between Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville and playing his regular role on the power play. He even took a shift in a 3-on-3 scrimmage the Sabres staged to cap the practice.
"It's nice to see him with the group and he looked his old self," Pominville said. "He was moving really well and made some nice plays. It was good to see him out there and it puts a smile on everyone's face for sure. If he wants to see where he's at and get a feel for game reps, this is a perfect opportunity. We had a couple days off, now a couple days of practice and then we get back into the thick of things."
Indeed, the Sabres have a rare break in the schedule with five days between games from Saturday's shootout loss to Vegas to Thursday's visit by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Coach Phil Housley took advantage of the schedule to give the team Sunday and Monday off and with good reason: Buffalo goes right back into the scheduling whirlwind beginning Thursday, with seven games in a 12-day span.
"It was a pretty good practice. There was a lot of pace to it," said Housley. "You could tell he's (Eichel) 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."
When will Eichel return? How he feels Wednesday, the day after his first practice, will go a long way to determining if Thursday is the day.
"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."
It's known that Eichel relishes the chance to meet the Leafs and his friend, Leafs center Auston Matthews. But Matthews remains sidelined by a shoulder injury and isn't likely to play here Thursday. The Sabres play the Leafs twice more in Air Canada Centre, on March 26 and April 2.
"I'm sure it's in the back of his mind for sure but at the same time you have to be smart," Pominville said. "It's only one game and we do have two more times with them. Those are games, especially in our barn, that have a really fun atmosphere that I'm sure he has targeted but you definitely have to be smart."
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 that continues Saturday against Chicago. Buffalo was 7-9-5 last year when Eichel was out after suffering an injury to his left ankle the day before the season opener.
"It was definitely a tough practice and we knew that coming in with the last two days off but I had been skating the last couple weeks a good amount," Eichel said. "I put in really good sessions to get conditioning levels back. I'm pretty happy with where I am right now and how I feel 'wind-wise.' The conditioning level comes back pretty quick and I don't think I lost too much. I felt pretty good today."