LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- The Golden Knights lost their second straight game and their fourth in their last five games Turesday night, a 4-3 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at T-Mobile Arena. However, despite the recent struggles, their is a ton of optimism and excitment in the halls of City National Arena this week and it's all due to the arrival of Jack Eichel.
"We're excited to get him back. Give us a little breath of fresh air seeing him skate again," smiled Golden Knights captain, Mark Stone. "It's been a while since we've seen him. We're excited to get him back in a full team practice looks like Thursday or Friday."
"Out of sight, out of mind. He hasn't been around, but now not only is he around, he's out on the ice with us, explained Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer. "Even though he's going to be in a non-contact situation for a while, that gives your team a boost. They see the end of the road is on the horizon somewhere."
The Golden Knights traded Alex TUch, Peyton Krebs, and a pair of picks to the Buffalo Sabres for Jack Eichel last November. Eight days later he had his artificial disk replacement surgery on his neck, a procedure choice that forced the hand of the Sabres to trade their former captain in the first place.
Two months later, Eichel was at CNA, skating with his teammates for the first time.
"It felt amazing. A bit of an emotional moment for me, just another step in the process, but this was like a kid in Christmas this morning, waking up, having the opportunity to get back on the ice with the guys," explained Eichel. "I know there were only a few of them out there, it was an optional skate, but with everything that I've been through, it felt like things were getting back to normal for me and that's what I wanted all along. Felt really good to be here and to be part of the group."
"The last few weeks, I feel really good now, I think I can - I almost feel back to normal. It's been a while since I played a hockey game, as many reps as I can get on the ice, as much practice time, flow, tempo and timing. That's where we're at now."
There are two major questions Eichel continues to get in his recovery; When will he return to game action? Who will be his linemates? Both questions still don't have answers.
"I was thinking about suiting up tonight, but they wouldn't let me go. I wish," Eichel joked on Tuesday morning. "I wouldn't say there is a target date at this point, see how you feel, see how you progress, see how comfortable and confident you are. I think at that point, I feel like I'll know mentally, physically and emotionally, when I'm ready to go. The team, the organization, has been so supportive, not putting a hard date on when I'll be back or when they would expect me to be back, so it's been low pressure. We'll continue to do what we need to do to get you back to compete and that's been my mindset too, so no target date. You have different milestones you want to meet during this process, today was one being back on the ice with other guys and being here in Las Vegas. We'll just continue to progress from here and see how it goes."
"It's been really exciting to watch the team. There are so many great players in that locker room and so many great guys I think I can mesh with and play with. That's not really up to me, I think at this moment it's important to put myself in the best position to be back at 100% and help this team win hockey games."
Eichel mentioned that since the trade, throughout his recovery, and even during his short time here in Vegas, he has been in consistent contact with former Sabres teammate Robin Lehner, Max Pacioretty, and Mark Stone.
"I'm assuming he will travel with the team whcih will be pretty cool for him to see how things are run on the road, on the plane, that kind of stuff," expained Stone. "Those are the kind of things that take a little time to get used to because everything is run differently on different teams. Speaking from experience I knew that was a little tougher to feel comfortable on the bus on the plane, that kind of stuff."
"Just getting to know people and build relationships, be more comfortable," said Eichel "It's important to be here every day and be around the guys and for me that's fund, that's what I love to do, be around the locker room, be around the guys. I've missed this for a while, I haven't had that experience this year of what you'd normally get, going on the road, being with the guys on the plane, on the bus ,traveling, in the hotel. When you've had that taken from you, you start to realize how much it means, that camaraderie. It's nice to be back here and you start to feel it this morning. I've had a big smile on my face all day, that's what I love, it feels like things are starting to get back to normal for me. I'm very fortunate."
The Golden Knights know they are still likely weeks away from seeing number nine out on the ice at T-Mobile Arena, but that hasn't stopped their imagination or expectations in their quest for the Cup.
"We're excited adding a top-ten player in the league in our lineup at some point," said Stone. "Still not sure when that will be, it's stilla little ways away. He's got to get some timing and feel comfortable to play, but we're excited to have him, be around the team. It will be exciting to see his skillset in the next little bit in practice here and building up into his first game. Just going to make us deeper, it's going to give other teams matchup probrlems. He can carry the load for a line, I think the depth of our lineup is going to get significantly stronger when you put him in the linup fo rthe first time. He's just going to make us a bigger problem to matchup against."