Will Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews return from injuries in time for Sabres-Leafs?

Injured stars Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews each took steps toward returning to their respective teams this week, but neither has been cleared for Thursday's Maple Leafs-Sabres game.

Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews have entered the final stage in their recoveries from injury, leaving open the possibility Thursday's game between the Maple Leafs and Sabres becomes the first time both American stars meet head to head this season.

Buffalo's Eichel took part in a full team practice for the first time Tuesday since suffering a high-ankle sprain Feb. 10.

Toronto's Matthews, who hasn't played since Feb. 22 with a shoulder injury, took the same step Monday and skated again Tuesday wearing a red non-contract jersey.

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Neither has been cleared to play. In each case, there's no reason to rush, with the Maple Leafs locked into playoff positioning and the Sabres long out of contention. But the idea of an Eichel-Matthews reunion lends intrigue to a regular season meeting that otherwise lacks for substance.

"I don't really know. I don't want to put a timetable or pick a specific game," Eichel told reporters after testing the ankle. "I'd like to play as quickly as I can. It's more about how I feel and how my ankle reacts to practice today, how it feels tomorrow, how I feel physically."

Apart from putting on a show at this year's All-Star Game, Matthews and Eichel last shared the ice April 3, 2017.

A scheduling quirk meant the cross-border rivals waited until March 5 to play their first game of the season, but both stars were absent.

Eichel's injury timeline was uncertain. He missed more than a month in 2016 with a high-ankle sprain in the opposite leg. There was talk then about shutting him down for the balance of 2017-18 with the Sabres in last place, but the 21-year-old's recovery is progressing well.

The Leafs are playing it safe with Matthews. They're seven points behind the Bruins and 12 points ahead of the Panthers entering play Tuesday, all but locked into third place in the Atlantic Division playoff race. If circumstances were more urgent, it's likely Matthews would have made his return by now.

A March matchup between the Leafs and Sabres is hardly cause to change that philosophy. They meet twice more: March 26 and April 4, both in Toronto.