Secondary scoring is suddenly the least of the Buffalo Sabres' concerns. Now, coach Phil Housley and General Manager Jason Botterill may be without their captain and star center, Jack Eichel.
Eichel, the Sabres' leading scorer with 49 points in 40 games, left in the first period with an upper-body injury and did not return in a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday night in KeyBank Center.
The Sabres, now 21-13-6 with 48 points, have scored only 10 goals in their last six games and are only two points ahead of Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division.
Despite losing Eichel, the Sabres managed to cut the deficit to one goal when Kyle Okposo scored during an impressive third-period rally, however, they could be without a Hart Trophy candidate at a critical point of the season.
"It’s an upper-body injury, but I don’t think it’s going to keep him out too long," Housley told reporters. "It’s just one of those things he sort of aggravated something in his upper body, so he came off the ice."
Eichel was absent from practice Sunday in HarborCenter and was a game-time decision after skating with a few teammates Monday morning. Though he was in the lineup against the Islanders, Eichel was limited to 2:42 over four shifts before leaving for the locker room and did not return.
That forced Housley to use Evan Rodrigues, Vladimir Sobotka and Johan Larsson as the top-line centers between Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart.
Still, the Sabres managed to play one of their better periods in weeks.
They outshot the Islanders, 13-3, during the third period and 40-33 for the game. Buffalo had a number of pucks barely miss the net throughout the game. Robin Lehner, the Sabres' former goalie, made 39 saves in his return to Buffalo.
Brock Nelson's wrist shot skipped off Carter Hutton's glove to give the Islanders a 2-0 lead 1:45 into the third period, which proved to be the deciding goal.
"You’ve got to keep playing no matter what," Okposo said. "Obviously, [Eichel] being out is tough but you keep playing, you keep pushing out. I liked our response in the third. Gave one up early but I thought we took it to them. … We played pretty well for most of the game. We just have to find more ways to score."
The Sabres took two penalties during an ugly second period, which began with Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy scoring only 2:59 in for a 1-0 lead. Hutton was outstanding to keep the deficit at one entering the second intermission, including his save on Casey Cizikas during a 3-on-1 odd-man rush.
Okposo, who was demoted to the fourth line after going 21 consecutive games without a goal, scored on the power play 10:14 into the third to make it 2-1 when Tage Thompson screened Lehner. But New York's Ryan Pulock ended the rally with 32 seconds remaining when his clearing attempt caromed off the glass and rolled slowly into an empty net.
"There’s games and stretches where pucks aren’t bouncing your way," Thompson said. "There are stretches were everything seems to be going in for you. Right now it’s obviously tough to find a goal for me personally. As a team I think we’re struggling a little bit finding the back of the net."
Housley was pleased with the Sabres' overall play, particularly how they responded in the third period. They were aggressively shooting the puck with traffic in front of Lehner. But the Sabres are now 4-7-4 since they won a 10th consecutive game Nov. 27 against San Jose.
Eichel, 22, has 15 goals and 34 assists this season. His 18 multipoint games are tied for second-most in the league. If the Sabres' top line maintains its current pace, the team would have three 80-point players for the first time since 1992-93. Entering Monday's game, Eichel was also on pace to finish the season with 32 goals among 103 points, both of which would be career highs.
"Obviously, losing him hurts," Thompson said. "He’s our captain and arguably our best player. That’s a hole in our lineup for sure, but I thought we did a really good job playing solid defensively, staying on the right side of pucks."
The Sabres' day began with the arrival of C.J. Smith, a 24-year-old winger who was tied for the team lead in Rochester with 29 points in 33 games. Housley hoped Smith could provide a "spark" for a struggling offense in need of secondary scoring.
Now, the bigger question is if Eichel will be available to play when Florida comes to Buffalo for a 7 p.m. game Thursday, and what Housley or Botterill will do to address the void.
"This is testing us," Housley said. "Mentally, we’re going to have to fight through this, and when I say that I really like our game, especially the last two games. We have to continue to grind it out and stay the course."