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Thompson practices on top line with Eichel nearing return

Forward remained on a line with Skinner and Eichel at practice on Thursday

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Jack Eichel said he felt back to 100 percent following a full practice at Harborcenter on Thursday. 

Sabres coach Phil Housley wouldn't go so far as to confirm Eichel for the team's game in Carolina on Friday, but he was encouraged by what he saw during the hour-long practice.  

"I thought he did quite well, a pretty high-tempo, bump-and-grind practice," Housley said. "It's good to see him out there. I thought he did a good job today."

Video: Sabres Now (1/10/19)

If practice was any indication, Eichel would slot in on a line with Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson if he does return against the Hurricanes. The Eichel-Skinner duo is nothing new; the two have skated together since late October. But up until Tuesday, the right wing on that line had been long occupied by Sam Reinhart.

The trio of Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart have shared the ice for 20 goals compared to 11 against in 282:03 at even strength. All three players are having career years - Eichel with 49 points (15+34), Skinner with 42 (29+13) and Reinhart with 40 (9+31). 

With Eichel out of the lineup on Tuesday, Housley decided to split the two wingers in an effort to balance his forward lines. Skinner skated with Thompson and Vladimir Sobotka; Reinhart skated on the right wing alongside Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues.

The move was a success. Skinner scored his 29th goal of the season, while Thompson tallied a season-high six shots. Reinhart set the screen for Lawrence Pilut's first NHL goal and led the Sabres with 76.92 Corsi-for percentage. 

Reinhart's line was on for 16 shot attempts-for as opposed to six against, according to Natural Stat Trick. Two of those chances would have resulted in goals, had it not been for grade-A saves from Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid:

 

The Sabres practiced with the same line combinations on Thursday, albeit with Eichel between Skinner and Thompson instead of Sobotka. Housley said the 21-year-old Thompson has played well enough of late to warrant the promotion, allowing him to utilize Reinhart's production elsewhere. 

"Tage has been playing very good hockey the last 10 games, particularly the last five," Housley said. "He's creating a lot of offense, he's using his speed, he's using his shot, he's been reliable defensively. I just put him up with Jack to get some balance."

Thompson has tallied at least five shots in three of his last four games. He credited those high totals to improved defensive play, which has resulted in more time spent in the offensive zone.

"Just knowing the D and who you're out there with and against," he said. "It's the best league in the world and the best players in the world for a reason. You've got to be aware of their D jumping by you in the D-zone, trying to activate. For me, in the D-zone, it's making sure those D aren't getting by me and jumping to the net."

Thompson is willing to use his shot from anywhere in the offensive zone, whether he's using his soft hands to undress defenders on drives to the net … 

… or ripping hard wristers as soon as he receives the puck near the circles:

He won't try to do anything differently alongside Skinner and Eichel.

"I don't think I need to change my game at all," he said." I think I've been playing pretty well the past couple of games and getting opportunities. I don't have to change anything. Just get them the puck, let them do their thing and get open for them."

 

Going to Carolina

It will be a big 24 hours for Skinner. Voting for the "Last Man In" on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster closes at midnight Friday, and he'll play his first game in Carolina as a visitor later that night. Skinner played 579 games for the Hurricanes over eight seasons. 

"There will definitely be some emotions, I think," he said. "But it's just sort of part of the game, part of life. I think you just have to find a way to sort of channel it, I guess, and use some of it to your advantage. Other than that, just focus on the game because we've got a big job in front of us."
 
Fans have until the end of the night on Thursday to continue casting votes for Skinner, whose 29 goals rank second in the NHL. The forward said family and friends have made him aware of the support he's been receiving on social media throughout the week.

Tweet from @Sabretooth_NHL: "Jeff Skinner isn't an All-Star..."VOTE SKINS: https://t.co/xeHXLkNjCd pic.twitter.com/hRdsgJu7As

"They're keeping me up to date on all those things," he said. "But yeah, it's been cool. For me, coming to Buffalo it's been a new experience - a new fanbase, new teammates, a new organization. Everyone's made me feel real comfortable from the beginning and it's continued. It's a good feeling."

 

Lines at practice

53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 72 Tage Thompson
43 Conor Sheary - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 23 Sam Reinhart 
71 Evan Rodrigues - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 29 Jason Pominville
81 Remi Elie - 49 C.J. Smith

24 Lawrence Pilut - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 4 Zach Bogosian
6 Marco Scandella - 19 Jake McCabe 
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 48 Matt Hunwick

40 Carter Hutton 
35 Linus Ullmark

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