BUFFALO – After practicing more than an hour this 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. Right now, he’s at 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 three-year 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 53 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.”
Check back later for more on Eichel.
The Sabres recalled prospect Linus Ullmark this morning, meaning they had three goalies practice.
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 today. Housley said both will be reevaluated Wednesday.