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Mike Harrington: Skinner scare should remind Sabres to live more in the present

In about a half-hour Saturday afternoon, you saw exactly why the Buffalo Sabres have to be more about the present and stop always looking at the future.

Play out the worst-case scenarios in your head for a minute. What if Jeff Skinner hadn't pulled a Willis Reed act and come back out for the third period of the 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals?

Imagine if his ankle was completely blown out from the weird collision with Washington's Carl Hagelin. Or maybe there were tears in the ACL of the knee, which it appeared Skinner was grabbing as he was writhing and sliding on the ice. Or what if the torquing of the ankle ripped a bunch of ligaments or led to a torn Achilles?

All those scenarios seemed possible, looking at the gruesome video and GIF files of the play. And it's not far-fetched to play things out from there.

It could have easily been season over for Skinner and thus season over for this team, even though the latter is close to reality anyway. Perhaps GM Jason Botterill has to go into full sell mode more than we'd expect at Monday's trade deadline because no Skinner would mean absolutely no hope going forward.

And what about the little problem of negotiating a long-term contract extension for Skinner in the $70 million range? A serious injury like that would certainly grind those talks to a halt, at least temporarily, until the team had a better picture of Skinner's health going forward.

Thankfully for all parties involved, it appears Skinner emerged with just a close call. It was, frankly, stunning to see him on the ice in the third period. The KeyBank Center crowd didn't initially notice him for the first few seconds of his shift but when he touched the puck in the Washington zone, a roar went up.

"When I first saw him go down, I thought he got high-sticked," said Jack Eichel. "But when I got over closer to him, obviously I figured out that it wasn't a high stick. Obviously you think the worst when he's down there and he's in a lot of pain like that but it's great to see him come back and it's great to see he's all right."

Eichel should know. He's suffered two serious high ankle sprains his career. The first one came eight minutes from the end of practice the day before the 2016-17 season opener. It cost him 21 games and was a death knell for the Buffalo season before it ever started.

You just never know in sports. Injuries happen. Sometimes life intervenes, as we've seen the last couple of years with Kyle Okposo and Robin Lehner. Injuries, illnesses and off-ice problems are all part of the game. You can't plan for them but you can't act like they're not possible either.

Skinner said he had moments just like you did. The pain in his left leg was a weird one.

"There's a lot of things going through your mind," he said. "At first, kind of just wondering what's wrong with it. Once you get past that initial stage and you get back here, there's a pretty open line of communication going on. They're kind of explaining what's going on, what they're seeing when they're testing stuff out. The tests went pretty well and I was able to come back so that was fortunate."

Sabres players said they saw Skinner walking around in the locker room in the second intermission and knew things would be OK. Then the fans got their view and the mood brightened again.

The Sabres have been terrific the last two games, going toe-to-toe on the road in a shootout loss at Tampa Bay and then taking it to the defending Stanley Cup champions here Saturday.

They just don't play like that enough. They were first overall in the NHL in late November but the entire hockey world knew it was a bit of fool's gold with seven overtime or shootout wins.

Botterill should have gotten his team more help as the season went on. The thought that they weren't ready to win was a foolish one when they were already doing it.

Teams seize opportunity when it presents itself. Columbus fell out of a playoff spot for the first time in months on Thursday and one day later, the Blue Jackets made a trade with Ottawa for Matt Duchene.

Now, Columbus' situation is different in that they could be in an all-or-nothing scenario with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky potentially heading for free agency. But it still shows how the Jackets are attacking their playoff situation. Same for Carolina getting Nino Niederreiter for the likes of Victor Rask and Boston adding Charlie Coyle.

Instead, Botterill said he was going to trust his players. Most of them haven't proven trustworthy on a consistent basis.

Sabres, Jeff Skinner avoid disaster, pull away for win over defending Cup champs

Saturday was one of those what-if days. How can the Sabres be so bad against the likes of New Jersey and Florida and so good against Tampa Bay and the defending Cup champs?

The defense was strong and the penalty kill stopped both Caps attempts. The power play got a sensational goal from Rasmus Dahlin. Sam Reinhart continued his burgeoning season with his third career hat trick. Danny O'Regan looked like he should have been up from Rochester weeks ago and Scott Wilson showed why he's been missed all season.

And Carter Hutton's aggressive goaltending was in view right from the opening faceoff, making the key stops when the Sabres needed them.

When this team plays hard, it looks good. When it's soft — Housley's word — it's one of the worst in the league. Tomorrow isn't guaranteed. It would have looked a lot different if Skinner had suffered a serious injury. This season will always have the feeling it should have been something more but the Sabres sat back and didn't do enough to worry about today.

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