Six weeks ago today, a dreary silence fell upon the ice at KeyBank Center as Jack Eichel was assisted off the ice at practice with a high-ankle sprain. That was the day before the Buffalo Sabres were set to open their season, suddenly faced with the reality of doing so without their leading goal scorer from a year ago.
What a difference six weeks makes. Eichel was met by the cheers of his teammates as he returned to the ice with them on Wednesday morning for the first time his injury. There's still more progress to be made before he returns to the lineup, of course, but simply being back on his teammates' schedule was reason enough for optimism.
Video: Preview: BUF vs DET (11/23/16)
"That's what you miss the most when you're hurt, right?" Eichel said. "You obviously miss playing, you miss your time out there with the guys and being in the locker room at the same time as them and just being around them, so it's tough when you're not on the same schedule as them but it's nice to be back in the swing of things."
The good news doesn't stop there. While Eichel hasn't yet made the progress necessary to rejoin the Sabres for a game, it appears that Ryan O'Reilly has. O'Reilly has missed six of Buffalo's last seven games with an oblique injury, but was a full participant in the morning skate and expects to play on the Sabres' top line tonight against the Detroit Red Wings.
"I've felt great the last two days, so yeah, back to 100 percent," O'Reilly said. "It'll be nice to get back out there, I feel like it's been forever."
O'Reilly participated in battle drills and took faceoffs in practice on Tuesday, which he said was the final test that deemed him game-ready. Eichel, meanwhile, has skated for over a week and said he's already felt comfortable with physical tests. Bylsma said that Eichel's last couple of skating sessions were held at a higher intensity than the one he had with teammates this morning.
"For the most part I really have progressed through everything," Eichel said. "I think prior to skating with the team you go through everything. I've had a little bit of physical contact, soft starts, pivots, crossovers … I think I felt pretty comfortable and when you're out there you pretty much forget about the ankle, and that's a good thing."
The next step, Eichel said, is readjusting to the pace of play so that he can make a seamless transition back into the lineup.
Video: EICHEL: Pregame Interview
"Obviously I think there's something I have on my calendar that I have circled where I think I can play, but that's pretty fragile and can change pretty quickly," he said. "I think for me personally, I just want - not only my ankle but my entire game - I want to feel like I'm back to normal and feel like I can obviously step in and [not only] make an impact, but step in and make an impact the way I want to."
The Sabres are getting healthy at an already positive time, with the team coming off of back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Calgary. A victory over Detroit tonight would bring their record back to .500 this season with 20 points in 20 games.
"Those are two huge games for us," O'Reilly said. "It's nice. Coming into the locker room, you can see the guys looking confident. It's nice to score goals and [have] guys getting on the board. To come in and be a part of that, it's definitely some nice energy to be around."
Robin Lehner will get the nod in net for the Sabres. He'll be opposed by Detroit's Jimmy Howard.
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with the TOPS Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. Individual tickets and Family Packs are also still available, so come down if you're able to join us as the Sabres go for their third win in a row.
The puck drops between the Sabres and Red Wings at 7 p.m.
Red Wings focus: A new top line
Video: BYLSMA: Pregame Interview
Detroit has lost four games in a row, falling most recently at home against Calgary on Sunday. In an effort to generate more offense, the Red Wings made a change to their lines by returning second-year forward Dylan Larkin to center between former Sabre Tomas Vanek and Gustav Nyquist.
Vanek scored eight points (4+4) in seven games prior to being sidelined with an injury, but was held off the score sheet in his return on Sunday.
"I think you see them trying to play like the Red Wings are known for playing, just not consistently," Bylsma said. "They're a team that, in a number of ways, tries to outnumber you, outman you, swarm you down low and get at you there.
"They're a passing team, a puck-possession team and try to pass their way out of a number of situations. That's something that they've struggled with in their last couple games with their opposition and where we have to take advantage of them tonight."
26 Matt Moulson - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 23 Sam Reinhart - 9 Evander Kane
82 Marcus Foligno - 22 Johan Larsson - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 19 Cal O'Reilly - 27 Derek Grant
4 Josh Gorges - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson