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Jack Eichel practices in full, has chance to play against Sabres

Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy did not rule out the possibility of Jack Eichel returning to the lineup Saturday in Buffalo after the star center practiced in full with the team Friday.

“It’s a daily decision now that falls in the hands of Jack and the medical trainers,” Cassidy said. “When he’s ready, he’s in. It’s that simple for me, but he’s got to make that call.”

There might have been signs from practice that the Knights are leaning toward holding him out for another game. According to Sabres reporters on site, Eichel mostly participated on the second power-play unit and centered a line with Keegan Kolesar and Paul Cotter as Nic Roy took a maintenance day.

But this is the first time Eichel hasn’t been declared out of a game since suffering a lower-body injury against the Bruins on Jan. 11 and undergoing surgery.

“I haven’t been told he’s out for tomorrow,” Cassidy said. “I don’t expect him to play, but that could change. As I said, it’s been kind of a fluid thing once he got on the road with us, and now he’s graduated to a full practice.”

His return would be universally celebrated among Knights fans, but the reception would not be so warm inside KeyBank Center.

Eichel began his career with the Sabres as the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, arriving in Buffalo with great fanfare and burdened with the expectations of breathing life into a moribund franchise.

While Eichel was exceptional in his six seasons, the team never made the playoffs, and his tenure ended in the midst of a bitter dispute over surgery options for a serious neck injury.

He was traded to the Knights and underwent his preferred procedure, returning healthy to help lead the organization to its first Stanley Cup last season.

The Sabres have seen their postseason drought reach an NHL-record 12 seasons, a run not likely to end this year. Perhaps that’s why Eichel is still seen as a controversial figure in Buffalo and is likely to be booed if he does play.

Eichel has been with the Knights for this road trip, which started Saturday in Ottawa and wraps up Monday in Columbus. He skated with the team for two days in a red no-contact jersey and was in a regular white sweater for a morning skate in Boston before Thursday’s loss to the Bruins.

Friday marked his first full practice with the team with no restrictions.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on him,” Cassidy said. “I’ll have to go get a feel for how he did with the trainers and himself. Didn’t seem to be hindered at all, so I think it’s progressing well.”

It would be a big boost to a struggling team that is 2-5-1 in its past eight games. Eichel remains third on the team with 19 goals and 44 points despite missing 18 games.

He should have his biggest impact on a power play that has lacked punch, going 4 of 32 in the past 12 games.

But the absences of Eichel, right wing Mark Stone (upper body) and left wing William Carrier (upper body) haven’t been the only problems, and their eventual returns won’t necessarily be a magic elixir.

Cassidy said the Knights need to put negative plays behind them and not let one mistake turn into an extended stretch of bad hockey. They gave up four goals last week against the Maple Leafs in a six-minute span in the first period of a blowout loss, then allowed three goals in 2:20 in falling behind 3-0 to the Bruins.

“We’ve got to get out of a bad stretch quicker,” Cassidy said. “We give up a goal, we have to get back to work.”

The Knights did make a move Friday, recalling forward Grigori Denisenko from the Silver Knights and sending forward Jakub Demek to their American Hockey League affiliate.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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