Jack Eichel was willing to admit that traveling with the Buffalo Sabres for their game in Ottawa on Tuesday night was a step in the right direction in his recovery from a high-ankle sprain. That, however, was about all he could say with certainty as it pertains to his return to the lineup following practice on Monday afternoon.
Eichel said he's passed all the physical tests, which ranged from over a week's worth of solo skating sessions to then joining the team for a morning skate last Wednesday and finally participating in a series of practices that ramped up in intensity as the days passed. When asked if Tuesday was the date he had circled on his calendar for a potential return, he smiled and said "Who knows?"
"It's a step in the right direction, just being able to head out there and put my best foot forward," Eichel said. "Who knows what will happen tomorrow night? We're more than 24 hours away. All I can say is I felt good today. I felt good the last few days. I think I'm just getting more comfortable on the ice."
Video: Sabres in :90 (11/28/16)
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said there is "a possibility" that Eichel can play on Tuesday, but added that it depends on how his body responds to another day of practice. The fact that he was on the ice following a physical practice day on Sunday was a positive sign.
"Jack looks good on the ice," Bylsma said. "I thought yesterday was a bigger test for him … He responded well to it, came back this morning feeling good about it and today he looks real good, his skating's good, he's beating guys, stepping off guys, creating room and separation. Looks good to me."
Eichel centered a line with Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, a combination we saw for a brief period last season and again in the preseason. What we haven't seen before is the Sabres' new top power-play unit, which features Eichel playing along with Rasmus Ristolainen, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O'Reilly.
Bylsma said that unit was one he envisioned coming into the season, but never got to see come to fruition due to a number of circumstances in training camp. Eichel, O'Reilly and Ristolainen all arrived at camp late due to their involvement at the World Cup of Hockey, while camp ended early for O'Reilly and Okposo due to injuries.
Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, Evander Kane, Taylor Fedun and Cody Franson comprised Buffalo's second unit.
"That's the power play we never got to practice in preseason," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Those are the guys we wanted on the ice and the unit we want to put out there and those are some reps for Jack to be in that spot, feel comfortable in those spots. We'll hopefully we'll see him in those spots soon."
Video: EICHEL: After Practice
Bylsma said that Eichel's return has gone about as well as it possibly could have to this point, not only in the sense that Eichel has progressed right on schedule but in the fact that he's handled being away from the team evan better than Bylsma imagined.
As the clock ticks closer to his potential return, Eichel hopes he won't have to stay patient much longer.
"This is the toughest part, right? I mean, you've sat out for as long as you've have and now that you're getting this close to it, you feel like you can go any day now and the patience is starting to wear thin," Eichel said. "But you've got to make sure you're being smart."
Coverage of the game between the Sabres and Senators on Tuesday night begins with the TOPS Pregame Show at 7 p.m., or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7:30.
Lines at practice
26 Matt Moulson - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 22 Johan Larsson - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 27 Derek Grant - 28 Zemgus Girgensons
4 Josh Gorges - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson