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Sabres' Eichel has an answer for anyone wondering why he's playing

It's a question that's been asked often among fans. It's been asked to Jack Eichel himself.

Why would the Buffalo Sabres' franchise player come back, play out the meaningless few weeks and risk reinjuring his ankle?

"It's a bit frustrating for myself to get that question from people because it's a pretty simple answer to be honest with you: I'm playing because I'm a hockey player," Eichel said Tuesday in KeyBank Center. "It's kind of ridiculous for somebody to think the fact that we're out of the playoffs and we don't have an opportunity to really do anything with our season that I would just pack my year in. It's not who I am as a person. It's not who I've ever been and not who I am as a hockey player.

"At the end of the day, I love to play hockey. Whether we're in first place or last place in the league, it doesn't matter to me. I like to put my equipment on, go out there, play hockey. That's why I'm playing. I love to play it. I have a lot of fun doing it. It's what I look most forward to in my day. There's not really quite a feeling like it. I enjoy it every day. I'm a competitor. I want to be out there competing. I want to play, so that's why I'm playing."

After missing five weeks and 15 games, Eichel will play his third straight game Wednesday when the Sabres host the Arizona Coyotes. They're the two worst teams in the NHL, and Eichel will be out there.

"I think there should be a lot more questions asked if I decided I did want to pack it in and end my season because I had an ankle injury," the 21-year-old said. "I looked at my rehab process as if I was coming back to compete to try and get to the playoffs. Obviously, that's not the case, but I tried to put myself in the best position to come back and impact this team in a positive way.

"That's all part of us just building a culture around here. We should all want to be out there every night, and I think that's important."

The third-year pro wants no part of guys who feel differently.

"At some points, some people can lose a love for the game at this level," Eichel said. "It's stressful, obviously, and it takes a toll on you mentally, and there's a lot that goes with it.

"But at the end of the day, you have to take a step back here and there and realize that we get to play a game that we love every day. I couldn't be more fortunate to do it, and that's kind of the way I try and look at it."

Eichel returned to the lineup Saturday against Chicago.

"I felt like a kid on Christmas on Friday night," he said. "You're just waiting to play Saturday. The same thing for Sunday night. I'm just looking forward to playing. You wake up Monday, and you look forward to your game and you look forward to everything that goes into it. Just preparing yourself, everything you do throughout that day, the excitement, I get excited for every game.

"Not a lot of people get to do what we get to do playing in the NHL, so I'm going to enjoy it as much as I can."

It's clear the ankle is strengthening rapidly. He winced in pain during Saturday's victory. He blew past premier Nashville defensemen P.K. Subban and Roman Josi at different times during Monday's loss.

"I think I did a great job in terms of not rushing it," Eichel said of the injury. "There's a lot more hockey that I hope to play in my career. This is not something that I want to continue to deal with over the summer and affect my training, affect my preparation for next season.

"These are conversations that you have with a doctor, you have with the trainers and you have with the people in your corner, your agents, you family. I did it just like anybody else would. At the end of the day, I'm not really risking anything at this point. Every time you go on the ice you risk an opportunity of getting injured, but nobody really thinks about that.

"I go out there to compete every night, and I go out there and enjoy myself. I tried to get back as quickly as I could, and I tried to get myself to the best shape, the best I could feel. I just wanted to get back on the ice."

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