BUFFALO – After practicing more than an hour Tuesday morning, Jack Eichel’s first team session since suffering a high right ankle sprain Feb. 10, the Sabres center wouldn’t put a timetable on his return.
But Eichel, the Sabres’ leading scorer, likely couldn’t have participated in the team’s toughest practice in weeks – players just enjoyed two days off, a rarity – if he wasn’t capable of playing soon.
The Sabres host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday afternoon.
“I would like to play as quickly as I can,” Eichel said inside KeyBank Center. “It’s more about how I feel and how my ankle reacts in practice today, how it feels tomorrow, how I feel physically.
“Mentally, obviously, you’re back already whenever you’re out there that long and you missed that much time, you wish you were playing a few weeks ago.”
Eichel, who got tangled with Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk in Boston, started the practice inside HarborCenter slowly before finding finding a groove.
“You could see he’s been off for a while,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “But I think halfway to three-quarters way through the practice I thought he looked really good.”
Eichel said he’s been skating a “good amount” on his own – “Put in some really good sessions,” he said – to get his conditioning back.
“It’s been five weeks,” he said. “Nothing comes back overnight, it’s been a process. But you know what? I’m pretty happy with where I am right now and how I feel wind-wise. I think the conditioning level comes back pretty good but I don’t think I lost too much.”
Eichel, who has missed 14 games, went through every drill and centered Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville.
Clearly, the high ankle sprain Eichel, 21, suffered this year isn’t as severe as the one he sustained to his left ankle during practice on the eve of the opener a season ago.
Eichel returned to game action 48 days after going down. Tuesday was the 31-day mark.
Having dealt with the injury before has been beneficial.
“They’re a little bit different,” Eichel said of the injuries. “What I specifically did to my ankle was a little bit different, I think I was able to use last year’s experience to benefit, figure out what worked well. And the other thing is I knew what to expect with it.
“Obviously, going through last year’s injury, you know you’re going to tweak it, you know there’s going to be days where it feels great, there’s going to be days where it doesn’t feel great. You just try to manage it as well as you can.”
Of course, sitting and watching has frustrated Eichel. The former second overall pick was playing perhaps the best hockey of his short career and had just represented the Sabres in the NHL All-Star Game.
Despite missing more than a month, Eichel’s 22 goals and 53 points in 55 games are still tops on the team. The Sabres are 6-6-2 without him.
“I’m a bit frustrated with getting hurt again, you want to be in the lineup as much as possible,” Eichel said. “You want to be playing, you want to be around the guys as much as possible. So I was obviously frustrated. Mentally, it definitely wears on you that you’re not playing, you’re not out there competing with them every night.
“To have this happen again, I like to think that everything’s preventable, but looking at it and what happened, obviously it’s a freak accident. But I’m honestly probably a little bit lucky that it was only an ankle sprain, it could’ve been something a lot more severe with the way I fell.”
While Eichel has endured two ankle injuries, he has showcased some durability over his three NHL seasons, only missing one other game.
So Eichel said he plans to “look into everything” this summer to see if another ankle injury can be prevented.
“I focused a lot on my ankles last summer and strengthening them and my trainer put in a lot of things in my program to benefit from,” said Eichel, who also mentioned looking into his skates and edges. “It’s a freak accident so I’m just going to continue to do the best I can to be healthy as long as possible and be on the ice every time I can.”
Ironically, Grzelcyk is Eichel’s friend and former teammate at Boston University. Eichel said Grzelcyk “felt bad about the incident.” He said the two spoke after the game.
“You can’t fault him,” he said. “He’s a very good friend of mine and somebody who plays the game hard. He’s trying to make a play and we end up getting tangled up.”
In other news, the Sabres recalled top goalie prospect Linus Ullmark, 24, on Tuesday, meaning they had three netminders on the ice.
Ullmark, an AHL All-Star with the Rochester Americans, was summoned to play.
“He’s going to get an opportunity,” Housley said. “When that is, I don’t know.”
Ullmark is 20-11-10 with a 2.44 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and two shutouts in 42 AHL games this season.
The Sabres recalled the Swede to play Jan. 11, and he responded with a 44-save effort in a 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We felt it was a good time to call Linus up,” Housley said. “He certainly deserved to be up here. We’re going to continue to evaluate all our players, especially our goaltenders.”
Forwards Seth Griffith and Evan Rodrigues (both upper body) also practiced Tuesday. Housley said both will be reevaluated today.
The AHL has suspended Sabres prospect Justin Bailey one game for an illegal check to an opponent’s head in Sunday’s 5-4 shootout win against the Syracuse Crunch.
The winger scored in Saturday afternoon’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights before getting sent down.
Update: Bailey has been recalled.