Jack Eichel was on the ice for the start of practice Thursday morning at HarborCenter and appears poised to return from a three-game injury absence to center the Buffalo Sabres’ top line against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
“I felt good today,” Eichel said. “I feel 100 percent, so I’m just excited for the game (Friday).”
But Sabres coach Phil Housley, who said he liked what he saw from Eichel at practice, wouldn’t commit to the captain’s return to game action.
“I thought he did quite well,” Housley said. “It was a pretty high-tempo, little bump-and-grind practice and it was good to see him out there. I thought he did a good job today.
“I wouldn’t declare him in the lineup. Obviously, we wanted to see how he reacted to practice and we’ll know more (Friday).”
Eichel, who has been sidelined by an “upper body” injury, skated alongside Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson during his first full practice since late December.
Eichel said he was eager to play on the same line as Thompson, who Housley has moved to the top line in place of Sam Reinhart in an effort to create balance.
“He’s been playing well,” Eichel said of Thompson, “so we’ll just try to build chemistry as quick as possible.”
Reinhart skated on the second line Thursday, alongside center Vladimir Sobotka and left wing Conor Sheary.
“I just thought Tage has been playing very good hockey the last 10 games, particularly the last five,” Housley said. “He’s creating a lot of offense, he’s using his speed, he’s using his shot, he’s been reliable defensively and just put him up there with Jack to just get some balance.”
Eichel’s injury surfaced when he took a maintenance day from practice on Dec. 30. He skated just four shifts in a home loss to the New York Islanders on New Year’s Eve before leaving the game.
The Sabres have won two of the three games Eichel has missed, using Evan Rodrigues, Casey Mittelstadt and Sobotka to center the top line in his absence.
Eichel was a limited participant in the team’s practice on Monday but didn’t play in the Sabres’ 5-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night.
C.J. Smith, who scored his first NHL goal during the team’s five-goal second period, remains a candidate to be sent to Rochester upon Eichel’s return.
But Housley said Smith will accompany the team to Carolina.
Smith and Remi Ellie skated as extras Thursday.
“Obviously, it’s big for our group and the confidence,” Eichel said about the Sabres’ eruption in the second period, when five different players scored against the Devils. “There was a bit of maybe lack of scoring there going on for a while for a lot of us, so it’s good to see it get spread around. I don’t think anybody had more than one point. There were so many different guys contributing and it’s good to see. I think we can build off that and take it into (Friday) night.”