BUFFALO – The loud thud center Jack Eichel made crashing to the ice broke through the din that accompanied the Sabres’ final preseason practice.
It was approaching 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the eve of the season opener, and coach Dan Bylsma wanted another 10 minutes, maybe less, from his players before they showered and headed to the team’s annual kickoff luncheon.
Then, suddenly, Eichel’s left leg buckled after he lifted Zemgus Girgensons’ stick during a power play drill, and he fell awkwardly, suffering a high ankle sprain, one of hockey’s dreaded injuries.
The lively session inside KeyBank Center became eerily silent as the shocking scene unfolded.
Eichel writhed in pain before receiving attention. He was eventually helped off the ice without putting any pressure on his left leg.
Talk about a nightmare. Under the best-case scenario, Eichel, 19, will probably be out until mid- or late November or early December. High ankle sprains are notoriously tough to overcome.
“I think we all felt it on the ice,” Bylsma said of Eichel’s fall. “We were having a good practice, a lot of jump and enthusiasm in practice, and that happened. It took the wind out of the arena a little bit and the wind out of the guys a little bit.
“That point in time, you could probably slap them in the face to say, ‘Snap out of it.’ But everyone’s thoughts are with the injury and with the extent of it. We’ll all deal with it.”
Eichel’s so popular and talented his presence has already recharged the franchise and its rabid fan base. Optimism was brimming he would help lead the upstart Sabres to their first playoff appearance since 2010-11.
Tonight’s season opener against the Montreal Canadiens won’t be the same without the 2015 second overall pick.
The Sabres offered no timetable for Eichel’s return in announcing the injury Wednesday afternoon. TSN’s Bob McKenzie, however, reported the team anticipates he will miss four to six weeks or longer.
The Sabres play 14 games in the first four weeks and 20 contests in the first six weeks.
Recovering from a high ankle sprain can often be long and arduous.
Sabres goalie Robin Lehner suffered one on opening night a year ago, an injury that sidelined him three months and dogged him until he had season-ending surgery on his right ankle in late March.
Before Wednesday’s injury was announced, Bylsma wouldn’t compare Eichel to Lehner.
“We’re not going to jump to conclusions just yet,” he said.
Eichel, of course, is a potential superstar. He scored 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games during a rookie season in which he consistently improved and wowed fans with his dynamic talents.
“That’s a huge piece of the team,” Sabres winger Marcus Foligno said. “That’s just unfortunate right before the regular season kicks off.”
The 6-foot-2, 196-pound Eichel showcased strong durability as a rookie. Despite playing more than 19 minutes a game and constantly possessing the puck, Eichel rarely endured a notable hit thanks to his speed and smarts. He missed only one game because of the flu.
Bylsma said Eichel’s injury is different than, say, the broken foot center Ryan O’Reilly suffered in the middle of last season.
“This just feels a little bit different because it’s a cusp, an eve of starting a new season, one I think we’re all looking forward to,” Bylsma said. “I think that’s really why it takes the wind out of the sails out of the arena today. We’re 10 minutes away, maybe less than that, we’re eight minutes away from practice being over and getting ready for the game tomorrow.
“That happens, it takes a little chunk out of the team, the situation. It’s one we’re going to have to deal with whatever the extent of the situation is. Our team is not just Jack Eichel, it’s not just Ryan O’Reilly, it’s not just one player.”
Two weeks ago, when Eichel returned from the World Cup of Hockey, he spoke confidently and passionately, saying the Sabres possessed the talent to make the playoffs.
“Anything less than that,” he said, “is an underachievement this year for us.”
Those playoff hopes might already be in serious jeopardy.
VIDEO: Jack Eichel suffers high ankle sprain at practice. You can hear him yell, then arena goes quiet. Team says no recovery timetable yet. pic.twitter.com/t4OBtP9aD8
— Tom Martin (@4TomMartin) October 12, 2016