OTTAWA – The 21-game wait is over. Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, sidelined by a high left ankle sprain for almost seven weeks, will make his season debut tonight against the Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre.
Eichel can still feel the injury he sustained late in practice Oct. 12, the eve of the season opener. Still, it doesn’t restrict the second-year star.
“You can notice it at all times, to be honest,” Eichel told a hoard of reporters following the team’s morning skate. “It’s not something that bothers you. You just notice it. It’s not something that restricts you from doing anything. You know it’s there.”
It will be there for a while.
“It’s an injury that Jack’s probably going to feel for the next two weeks, four weeks, month, month and a half, two months,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s not going to feel 100 percent. He has to understand that. We’ve got to understand that.”
Eichel added: “It’s not going to be 100 percent back where you completely forget about it. … That’s something that I kind of just learned to live with.”
Living without Eichel has been difficult for the last-place Sabres, who are 2-5-3 in the last 10 games, a stretch in which they’ve only scored more than two goals once.
Their anemic, NHL-worst offense has only scored 38 goals this season, just 1.8 a contest.
Eichel will center Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, his linemates from late last season. With that scoring trio back intact, other players can move around.
“It makes a lot of other people better in our lineup, not just from his linemates, Sam and Evander, but throughout the whole lineup,” Bylsma said. “We’ve had that feeling the last few days in practice, that you feel a lot better about where you’re slotted, where you’re playing. It’s had an effect on our team.”
Don’t expect Eichel to play big minutes in his first NHL game since April 9.
“I hope it’s not going to be 23 minutes of ice time tonight,” Eichel said. “It’s going to be gradual, his step back onto his role on our team.”
Being away from game action was the toughest part for Eichel during his absence.
“That’s obviously the hardest part is not being able to play,” he said. “You work all summer, try to hit the ground running and you’re excited about a season, it’s your second year and you’re looking forward to it.”
Some other notes:
– Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will make his 16th start this season tonight. The Swede is 2-0-2 with a 1.30 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage against the Senators, his former team.
“It’s starting to become another game,” Lehner said about facing Ottawa. “I still have a lot of friends on that team that I like to say hi to, talk a little bit to, see some of the guys. But it’s a little bit of history here. I enjoyed my time here.”
Lehner made 32 saves Nov. 5 in the Sabres’ 2-1 win here.
– Rookie William Carrier earned a promotion this morning, skating on the left wing beside top center Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo.
Meanwhile, Matt Moulson, who has a team-high seven goals, skated on the right wing beside center Derek Grant and Zemgus Girgensons, the fourth line. Grant and Girgensons have combined for one goal in 42 games.
Tonight will be Carrier’s 12th NHL game.
“Will’s been able to add speed and physicality to whoever he’s played with,” Bylsma said. “I think that line with Ryan and Kyle will benefit from having Will’s speed, having his forecheck, having his aggressiveness on the wing. He’s been our best player for the last two days.
Bylsma added: “He’s demanded more spots on our team, and he’s done it with his play, done it with his physicality, done it with his energy level. That’s what you want from any player getting called up.”