Jack Eichel was the last player to return to the Buffalo Sabres locker room in KeyBank Center. He skated extra. A lot extra, after the team's practice in HarborCenter. As Wednesday morning turned into afternoon, Eichel was working on his conditioning, working on his skills, working on getting back to healthy.
He's still not quite there.
Sabres coach Phil Housley said that Eichel would not be in the lineup when the Sabres host the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday in KeyBank Center.
But Eichel is getting closer. And after two full practices, including one of the most strenuous ones of the season, the center is starting to feel like himself.
"I felt good this morning," Eichel said. "I felt really good. I felt better today than I did yesterday. That's what you want to look at for the positives. You just want to take a step forward every day and I thought I did that today."
Eichel is working his way back from a high ankle sprain that has kept him out of the lineup since Feb. 10.
"We're trying to ease him back into things," Housley said of Eichel. "He's been out a long time. He's got to get some practices in. He won't be playing tomorrow. He's just going to continue to progress."
Could he be back Saturday when the Sabres host the Chicago Blackhawks? Or Monday when they host Nashville?
There is no concrete answer.
"Could be a possibility but I don't want to put a timeline on it," Housley said. "I just feel that his progression is all that matters to us. He's got to feel comfortable. We'll continue to evaluate it every day."
And while Eichel wants to be on the ice, he also doesn't want to rush his return. That's not just a precaution against re-injury. The competitor in Eichel also wants to make sure he's on the ice contributing in meaningful ways for his team.
"I mean I think you always want more practice time," Eichel said. "Four and a half weeks it's been now. As much as you skate and you do everything you can, it's a lot different than being on the ice with these guys competing and battling. ... I'm just going to try and take the right steps forward to get back as soon as I can but I don't obviously want to rush it. I want to get back at a point in my ankle, in my body at where it feels good and where I'm at the point I feel I can contribute the way I want to."
While Eichel is still on the mend, other Sabres are returning from injury. The expectation is that Evan Rodrigues will be in the lineup Thursday, back after missing five games with an upper body injury.
Rodrigues was getting into a groove at the time of his injury, notching a goal and assist on Feb. 25 vs. Boston and scoring a goal while taking five shots on Feb. 28 against Tampa Bay.
"I was getting put into a lot of good situations to succeed," Rodrigues said of his time before the injury. "I just felt like every time I had the puck, I wanted it on my stick. I wanted to make a play."
Housley liked the way Rodrigues was playing before the injury as well, noting mostly his play was a result of "just his tenaciousness. He plays with urgency," Housley said. He would like Rodrigues to "continue to shoot the puck. When he shoots the puck, good things happen."
It was a shorter time on the injured list for Rodrigues this time. He missed the first two months of the season with a hand injury, making this one of his most challenging years in hockey. But as he returned to skating from this injury, his work with Dennis Miller, the team's director of rehab and development, helped Rodrigues get back up to speed.
"We had a few skates," Rodrigues said of working with Miller. "It's about getting your conditioning back up and getting your hands back into it. The injury was only a few days, but a few days off can make you a little rusty so it's just trying to get you back in game-shape and get your hands moving a little bit."
Slowly but surely, injured players are returning to the lineup. Seth Griffith practiced again Wednesday and could return Thursday from an upper-body injury.
Griffith said he feels good and is ready to go, adding that it's heartening to see players return to practice.
"It's tough when guys go down with injuries and I've been there. It's tough," Griffith said. "It's tough watching when you want to be out there helping. It's nice to see guys coming back."