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With Eichel's status in doubt, Rodrigues gets first chance to fill his slot

You're never going to replace Jack Eichel. It looks like Evan Rodrigues is going to get the first chance to at least fill in for him Thursday night.

Eichel missed the Sabres' practice Wednesday in HarborCenter with an upper-body injury, and coach Phil Housley said his star center was getting medical evaluation and still is considered day to day.

But not being able to practice after a day off is an ominous sign for Eichel's availability for Thursday's game against the Florida Panthers in KeyBank Center.

Rodrigues took Eichel's spot between Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart at practice Wednesday and figures to get the call on game day as well. It's a reward for his recent play, which has seen him total 23 shots on goal in the last eight games and play a career high 22 minutes, 7 seconds in Monday's loss to the New York Islanders.

One problem? Rodrigues has no goals in those eight games and just two for the season.

"You want the points to come and to be contributing offensively. It’s when the chances don’t come that you start to worry," said Rodrigues, a college linemate of Eichel's at Boston University. "I’m getting my chances, I’m getting a lot of shots. The opportunities are there. It’s just a matter of bearing down now and finishing those opportunities.

"I think I’ve done that over the last five, six games. My confidence is running high, back to where I want it to be. Hopefully that will lead to more points."

Eichel entered Wednesday tied for 11th in the NHL in scoring with a team-high 49 points and tied for seventh in the league in assists with 34. He has yet to miss a game this season, as the Sabres (21-13-6) will be playing Game 41 and reaching the halfway mark of the NHL schedule.

Skinner, who has a team-high 26 goals, is optimistic about what he can do with Rodrigues in Eichel's absence.

"He's a good player, has got some speed, some pretty good skill to make plays. I think it will be fun." Skinner said. "Everyone is good enough. We've been around each other long enough. Guys have seen each play in games and practice. Sam and I have some pretty good chemistry, and there's two-thirds of a line right there. You just try to communicate, get on the same page as quickly as possible and play the game."

Coach Phil Housley liked what he saw early in Monday's game with Rodrigues playing on a wing alongside Conor Sheary and Casey Mittelstadt. Lines and positions then became fluid when Eichel went out after playing just four shifts totaling 2:42.

"He's getting a lot of looks," Housley said of Rodrigues' shot totals. "The next stage is his contributions offensively, trying to finish and going to the net hard. He's doing all the right things right now. Hopefully that translates to production."

The timing of Eichel's injury couldn't be worse. Just as the Sabres are taking major steps backward in the playoff race, they run into a Florida team that has dominated them since 2014.

Sabres lose Jack Eichel to injury, fail to rally in 3-1 loss to Islanders

The Panthers have beaten Buffalo seven straight times, including twice this year, and that's their longest winning streak against the Sabres since joining the NHL in 1993. Since the calendar hit 2014, in fact, the Sabres are just 4-15-3 against Florida — 3-8-1 at home and only 1-7-2 in BB&T Center.

A big reason is the play of veteran goalie Roberto Luongo, who again will be in the nets against the Sabres on Thursday. He has owned Buffalo in his career with a 20-8-2 record, a 1.96 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and five shutouts.

In just over a month, the Sabres have gone from first overall in the NHL's overall standing to 12th entering Wednesday's game (albeit they remain just four points out of third in the tightly packed standing).

Of much more importance is the playoff race, where the Sabres have now slipped into a wild-card position, as they are just 1-4-1 in the last six games and 4-7-4 since their 10-game winning streak ended.

Boston pulled even with the Sabres in points and passed them on tiebreakers with its Winter Classic win over Chicago Tuesday at Notre Dame, and Montreal is one point back. The New York Islanders are two points behind Buffalo with two games in hand after beating the Sabres here on New Year's Eve.

The Sabres have averaged 33.5 shots on goal over the last six games but have managed to score just 10 goals.

"Maybe earlier on in the season there’s some games we win that maybe we didn’t have our best effort," Rodrigues said. "Now we’re putting together a good string of games and not getting results. … The wins will come as long as we keep doing the right things. the pucks will start to bounce our way."

•••

The Sabres' other lines Wednesday had Johan Larsson centering C.J. Smith and Kyle Okposo, Vladimir Sobotka between Sheary and Tage Thompson and Mittelstadt between Remi Elie and Jason Pominville.

Lawrence Pilut, out two games as a healthy scratch, was back in the top six on defense playing with Zach Bogosian. Nathan Beaulieu skated with Matt Hunwick on the extra pair.

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