BUFFALO -- They winced when center Jack Eichel went down on Wednesday. His Buffalo Sabres teammates and coaches watched as their hope dropped to the ice after his skate appeared to get caught in the ice, as he let out a scream, writhing in pain.
There had been more optimism heading into this season in Buffalo, more maturity, a sense of a light coming, perhaps growing stronger. But in that moment, as Eichel had to be helped off the ice, the light couldn't help but seem to dim.
"Once it happened on the ice, you could just feel everyone just tighten, like, 'Oh my gosh, please don't be anything serious,'" forward Ryan O'Reilly said. "And unfortunately, it's a bad injury."
There is no timeline yet on the high left ankle sprain Eichel sustained in the Sabres' final practice before the start of the regular season, an injury coach Dan Bylsma termed "moderate." But as Bylsma said after the Sabres morning skate prior to their season opener against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday at KeyBank Center (7 p.m. ET; SN360, MSG-B, RDS), "It's certainly more weeks than days at this point."
And that certainly is not good news for the Sabres.
"Obviously Jack's a big part of our team here, and nobody can really replace him up the middle there," forward Evander Kane said. "But we have to have guys come in and carry the load here for the next couple of weeks here until he gets back. I think the desperation level to have a good start just heightened a lot more."
In the first 24 hours since the injury, the Sabres have settled into the knowledge the road ahead will be more difficult. The surprise is gone, with determination replacing it.
"I think yesterday there was a little bit of shock and awe with the situation, having it happen on the ice, and the injury right before the start of the season," Bylsma said. "I think there was that. I also think every team and every group has to go through some adversity and some injuries and some injury situations. You've got to learn how to play with the guys that are on the ice.
Video: Sabres coach Bylsma updates Eichel injury
"We believe we're 23, 24, 25 are on our roster, and we're a 25-man team. We have to approach it that way. It's next man up and we've got to go out there and do it with the injury situation we have, and that's not just with Jack. Kyle [Okposo is] not in there and Dmitry [Kulikov is] not in there. Those are good players for our team. We're going to have to go out and play a good team game without them."
The pressure will increase on O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart and Kane, players whose offensive abilities will be needed during Eichel's absence. O'Reilly will move into Eichel's spot at top-line center, between Reinhart and Kane.
"What [Eichel] does on the ice, no one will be able to do that, fill those shoes," O'Reilly said. "But to a man, we've got to make sure we're putting the puck in the net.
"It's a big responsibility. We have to create offense, whether it's power play or even 5-on-5. I don't think you're going to see me flying down the wing like [Eichel] does and creating like that, but there is an added pressure that definitely have to step up in that area."
Especially if the Sabres want to challenge for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They have missed the postseason the past five seasons, and haven't won a playoff series in nine seasons. It has been a long wait for a successful team in Buffalo, and Eichel, who led the Sabres with 24 goals as a rookie last season, represents the promise of a brighter future.
But now he will be out of the lineup for at least a few weeks, time the Sabres will need to ensure won't be lost.
"Even though we're young, we want to mature and I think we have depth and we know that," O'Reilly said. "He is a big piece that we're not going to be able to fill, but we have the guys here that can step up and guys can do other things to win hockey games."
The disappointment, though, still lingers. They were so close to the end of practice, so close to the start of the season. They already had had injuries to deal with and weren't looking to add more. And then Eichel went down.
"I don't necessarily think it's really anything to put behind [us]," Kane said. "I think we've just got to move forward here. We have a game here tonight. We go out on the road for a tough road trip out west. For us, we've got to carry the load here while he's gone. Hopefully when he comes back, he's coming back to a team that's in a playoff position."