Teammates help Jack Eichel off the ice today. ©2016, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ Jack Eichel injures ankle, status uncertain

BUFFALO – Just a day before the season opener, Sabres center Jack Eichel injured his left ankle in a scary scene late during today’s practice, leaving the young star’s status uncertain.

“Not a lot to tell after that,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s going to get evaluated this afternoon.”

Update: The Sabres have announced Eichel has a high ankle sprain. No timetable has been set for his return. TSN’s Bob McKenzie, however, tweeted the Sabres anticipate Eichel will miss at least four to six weeks, perhaps longer.

Eichel’s leg buckled after he lifted Zemgus Girgensons’ stick and planted his foot during a power play drill. Eichel, 19, went down hard and writhed in pain before team staff attended to him.

“There’s not any kind of battle of contact with anybody,” Bylsma said of how the injury occurred.

The second-year star was eventually brought to his feet after a minute or two and led off the KeyBank Center ice.

The practice, which was lively and noisy, quickly became silent.

“I think we all felt it on the ice,” Bylsma said. “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.”

It won’t, however, be easy to deal with. Eichel, the second overall pick in 2015, 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.

The Sabres, of course, open the season Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens. After a dramatic improvement in 2016-17, there’s an excitement accompanying the campaign and an expectation the Sabres will end a five-year playoff drought.

Eichel was probably the biggest reason for that optimism.

“That’s a huge piece of the team,” Sabres winger Marcus Foligno said. “That’s just unfortunate right before the regular season kicks off.”

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.”

Sabres goalie Robin Lehner suffered a high right ankle sprain opening night a year ago, an injury that sidelined him three months and dogged him until he had season-ending surgery in late March.

Bylsma wouldn’t compare the injuries.

“We’re not going to jump to conclusions just yet,” he said.

In other news, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen practiced today, a day after signing a six-year, $32.4 million contract.

“I trusted we would get it done,” Ristolainen said. “I’m not sure when.

He added: “Thursday was coming pretty quick.”

With Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian (groin) and Dmitry Kulikov (bruised tailbone) all practicing today, the Sabres finally have a full defense corps.

O’Reilly (back/midsection spasms) also practiced today and will likely play Thursday.

“I think he looked good,” Bylsma said.

Meanwhile, winger Kyle Okposo (bruised knee) is out Thursday but will skate in the morning, Bylsma said.

Canadiens goalie Carey Price, arguably the NHL’s best, won’t make the trip to Buffalo because of the flu.

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