All-Stars Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel were back at practice Monday after spending their weekend in San Jose and everything at HarborCenter was routine.
Then Skinner went down, slid across the ice and accidentally took out Eichel below the knees as the Buffalo captain frantically tried to avoid the collision. Both players were unhurt and left to sheepishly smile about the near-miss afterward.
The team had just switched from the smaller of HarborCenter's two rinks to a fresh sheet of ice on the feature rink when Skinner lost his balance and skidded at full speed into Eichel. Skinner quickly hopped to his feet and Eichel, who initially looked a little shaken up by the collision, slowly skated over to the boards to collect himself and then rejoined drills a couple minutes later.
"I didn't want to hurt Jack. I knew I was all right," Skinner said. "It wasn't a good feeling. You're falling on your pants there and you don't have much control of where you're going or how to stop. But he's got pretty good reflexes and got out of the way pretty quick, so he was all right."
The incident was reminiscent of a 2012 practice collision in KeyBank Center when Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold skidded on the ice and took out coach Lindy Ruff from behind. Ruff crashed to the ice on his back and suffered three broken ribs, forcing him to watch the next few games from the press box rather than the bench.
The difference here was that Skinner was coming from the front, so Eichel saw the oncoming collision.
"It's good that we're able to laugh about it," said a chuckling Eichel. "I think he lost an edge there. That could have been pretty bad, so it was good it wasn't."
Both players will be fine for Tuesday's game in Columbus. The Sabres return to play after the break four points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern conference and are just 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. After playing the Blue Jackets, they are in Dallas Wednesday before opening a seven-game homestand Friday against Chicago.
Eichel said his trip to the All-Star Game was a fruitful one for his burgeoning memorabilia stash.
"I got some cool things," he said. "I got my game jersey signed by all the East guys. I got a stick signed by everyone in the game again and I grabbed one of [Sidney] Crosby's sticks. That was pretty cool. I'd been waiting on one of those for a little bit. I have an Alex Ovechkin stick, too."
Eichel said in San Jose he made a similar haul at last year's game in Tampa, adding his first career All-Star jersey to other key ones from his career, including his Team North America sweater from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
The Sabres' power play is 0 for 13 over the last four games, 1 for 22 in the last eight games and just 4 for 41 in the last 14. Coach Phil Housley's latest tinkering Monday was to try a four-forward unit. Kyle Okposo joined Eichel, Skinner, Sam Reinhart and Ramsus Ristolainen on the top unit.
"Scoring chances don't count anymore. We have to have production," Housley said of his power play, which is 21st in the NHL at 17 percent. "There's time in the past 10 games we've had really good opportunities and the goalies have made good saves. That's not an excuse. It's all about production."
The second unit Monday had Casey Mittelstadt between Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary, with Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson in the rear.
"It's a good time to work on it today, move the puck around, keep it simple," Housley said. "We used Kyle back on that flank and I thought both units moved the puck really well. We've got to work on it because we're not getting the results.
The Sabres have sat for 11 days, watching teams pull ahead of them in the standings but now they get a chance to play while teams in front of them like Montreal and Toronto go on their bye week.
Buffalo is seven points behind the third-place Canadiens in the Atlantic Division but has three games in hand.
"It's uncomfortable because you're seeing teams, particularly Montreal, keep winning and those games in hand and just what they are: games in hand," Housley said. "You still have to get results in them. I think it's a good thing for us, a challenge for us. This is where we've wanted to be. ... I'm excited to see how our guys are going to react to that challenge."