Jack Eichel returned to practice on a limited basis Monday after missing the previous two games with what’s listed as an upper-body injury, raising the possibility the Buffalo Sabres' captain returns to the lineup for Tuesday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils at KeyBank Center.
Whether that’s likely is another matter.
“I’m a competitive guy,” Eichel said. “I like to be out there every night and it kills me to not be out there. It kills me not to be playing. It kills me not to be hanging out with these guys every day and competing.
“I think the hardest part about it is just the mental aspect, and we’ve talked about this before the last few years, just not being able to get out there and do it. But it feels good to practice today. It feels good to make strides. I felt good. I’m feeling like myself again. So like I said, just want to try and see what (Tuesday) brings.”
Eichel was absent from the ice for the first 20 minutes of practice, and once he skated onto the ice, he did not join a line. He participated in some team drills and spent some time with the top power play unit.
Sabres coach Phil Housley declined to provide much detail on Eichel’s timetable but seemed optimistic about his progress.
“Him just coming back and getting the OK to get into practice was a good sign,” Housley said, “so we’ll know more (Tuesday) on that.”
While Eichel is frustrated to miss time, he made it clear there’s no rush for him to return.
“I think at this point it’s sort of just taking it every day, seeing how I feel,” Eichel said. “Obviously, it’s not a rush. You don’t want to put yourself in a bad position. You want to make sure you’re comfortable in every situation that you put yourself in, myself and the team, so I think that’s kind of been where it’s at now. Just seeing how we are each day, trying to progress.
“I think if you can just get a little better every day, I think it’s a positive. For me, it’s been that sort of thing. Everything I can do to try and get back and help the team as soon as possible, I want to do. But with that being said, obviously you don’t want to rush things and put yourself behind.”
Vladimir Sobotka centered the top line Monday, alongside Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson.
The Sabres have used Evan Rodrigues, Casey Mittelstadt and Sobotka to center the top line since Eichel was injured. The injury first surfaced when Eichel took a maintenance day from practice on Dec. 30, and he skated just four shifts in a home loss to the New York Islanders on New Year’s Eve before leaving the game.
“I think anytime you lose a big piece, it’s an opportunity for guys to step up and guys get some more opportunity to sort of show what they can do,” Skinner said. “I think that’s just part of being on a team. ... Teams run into injuries and guys have to respond. It’s a long season. It’s going to happen with the lineup and you just have to have guys step up.”
Mittelstadt said there’s no way to adequately replace Eichel’s production.
“He’s a big part of our engine, obviously,” Mittelstadt said. “He does a lot for us and makes a lot of plays, one of the best players in the league. You can’t really replace him. You’ve just got to get some scoring from everyone overall, and everyone’s got to do their job a little bit better. That’s what it comes down to.”
Housley said there’s at least some silver lining to Eichel’s absence, in that it means more playing time and experience for other players. He pointed to the team’s 4-3 victory against Florida on Thursday.
“I think you saw the result against Florida,” Housley said. “If we play our team game, even when Jack’s in the lineup, we have to play a team game. Some guys stepped up and played more minutes, more meaningful minutes with his absence. We know that, even in Boston, we looked really good at times. And that’s a very good team. They’re fighting for the same thing we are.
“The minutes are going to be spread around. There’s going to be guys in different seats on the bus. But when we do play a meaningful 60-minute team game, we’re going to have team success.”
As for what Housley is looking for once Eichel returns?
“I think just getting back to his game,” Housley said. “I loved the way he was playing the 200-foot game before this absence of him, whether it was D-zone coverage and his awareness at killing plays. But the way he was attacking, coming out of our end through the neutral zone, using his speed, and he was heavy down low in the offensive zone. He’s able to protect pucks and fend guys off him and then get that separation he needs to get his eyes up and to make a play. I think just playing a solid 200-foot game.”
Eichel said the team needs to play with “desperation” to succeed, regardless of whether he plays.
“Obviously, you need that desperation with or without me in the lineup,” Eichel said. “Whoever is in the lineup at that time, you can see how tight of checking the games have become, and it’s that second half of the year. Everyone’s trying to push towards a spot, so I think for us it’s just about every day coming in and trying to get better work and preparing ourselves for the next day.
“There’s so many ups and downs in an NHL season, it’s important for us to try and stay even-keeled and try to narrow our focus as much as we can, and for the group in here, obviously it’s been pretty positive for us. The times where we’ve played desperate, we’ve respected the opponent, we’ve respected our own end, tried to keep the puck out of our end, and obviously worked to get in their zone and get the puck behind their goaltender. It’s not an easy league to score in by any means.
"It’s good that guys are chipping in. I guess you could say we need more from everyone every night, because every team is bringing more every night. It’s getting more and more competitive, and that’s just how the season goes. As the season amps up, I think we’ve got to amp ourselves up, too. I think we’re ready for the challenge. We’ve just got to commit to it.”
Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons returned to practice Monday. He’s been listed as week to week with an upper body injury since least playing against St. Louis on Dec. 27.
His availability for Tuesday has not yet been determined.
Girgensons skated on the third line with Mittelstadt and C.J. Smith.
Top-line forward Sam Reinhart is sick, Housley said, explaining his absence from Monday’s practice. Reinhart missed the team’s Skills Challenge on Sunday after playing 19:14 over 22 shifts against Boston on Saturday.
Defenseman Zach Bogosian received a maintenance day, Housley said.
Glotov to All-Star Game
Cincinnati forward Vasily Glotov, the Sabres' seventh-round pick in 2017, has been named to the CCM/ECHL All-Star Classic and will represent the Western Conference. The game is at 7 p.m. Jan. 21 and will air on NHL Network.
Glotov, in his first full pro season, has seven goals and 16 assists in 31 games for the Cyclones this season. He appeared in six games at the end of last season between Cincinnati and Rochester.