OTTAWA (CP) - Mike Comrie is one win away from uncharted territory - the second round of the NHL playoffs.
The 26-year-old Edmonton native is one of the reasons the Ottawa Senators lead their best-of-seven series 3-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into Game 5 Thursday night (7 p.m. ET).
"He's been great," said linemate Mike Fisher. "He's not the biggest guy, but he's got a big heart. He's playing really well and physical, making good plays and being smart. He's been huge for us. . . .
"He's playing with a bit of an edge."
No doubt that will come as a surprise to Edmonton Oilers fans who chased their native son out of town four years ago during a messy contract dispute. But it's the plain truth.
Comrie has dropped the gloves in this series, scored two goals and added a huge assist in four games, while running around menacingly like a pitbull broken free from his leash.
"He's one of the smaller guys in the league but he goes out and plays like Zdeno Chara. It's unbelievable," said rugged Ottawa winger Chris Neil.
Comrie says he's having a blast.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said Wednesday after practice at Scotiabank Place. "Playing in the playoffs again is what every player wants to do. Having an opportunity to play with this team . . . it makes things a lot more enjoyable when you have a chance to win every night."
Comrie arrived in Ottawa via Phoenix in a January trade that was precipitated by injuries to top two centres Jason Spezza and Fisher. But he's proven to be much more than a band-aid, especially so far in these playoffs.
"I think he's risen to the occasion," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. "As the games get more important he's really played better. He's really determined and he's really gritty."
The 5-10, 185-pound Comrie stunned fans, press row and surely some teammates alike when he dropped the gloves in Game 2 with 6-2, 188-pound Colby Armstrong of the Penguins - and won the fight.
"I didn't really want him to do it, no question about it, but the fact that he did it and did well in it, tells me and tells the players, 'I'll help look after you and we'll all battle in this together.' And I kind of like that about him," said Senators head coach Bryan Murray.
Neil said he wasn't worried Comrie would get the short end of that tussle.
"I've seen Armstrong fight, he just turtles," said Neil, who then looked over at Comrie beside him and added: "But I've seen other Mike fights on YouTube. So we know he can fight."
Indeed, the website shows previous fights against Ilya Kovalchuk, Daniel Briere and Brett McLean. Alfredsson and other Senators went online to make sure Comrie had, in fact, dropped the gloves before.
It's the kind of fun one has with a teammate they've grown to like. Comrie has found a home on this club, already his fourth stop in six NHL seasons.
"When I was first traded here the first thing that went through my mind was being part of a team that has a chance to contend for a Stanley Cup," said Comrie. "As a player that's all you can ask for."
Alfredsson, whose word is gold in this dressing room, says the trade could not have worked out any better.
"Ever since he came here he's jelled with the team, he's a fun guy to be around," said Alfredsson. "He's obviously been a great addition for us."
Just how long Comrie's sojourn in Canada's capital lasts remains to be seen. He's an unrestricted free agent July 1.
"When I first got here (GM) John (Muckler) and I spoke and we both agreed that we'll discuss that after the season," said Comrie. "When you're in a situation like this, you can't look past the playoffs. We have bigger things to worry about right now than stuff that can be dealt with in the summer."
In the meantime, he's upgrading his value. For starters, he's becoming more aware defensively.
"I think he's tried really hard to upgrade his game without the puck," said Murray. "Last night, it's a 2-1 game with a couple of minutes to go, at one stage I might have substituted him for another guy from a checking point of view. I started to say that and then I said, 'Mike, you're on the line, go.' He's built confidence in the staff to allow that to happen."
Comrie, sporting a plus-4 rating, has had to adjust to a new role. Instead of the first-line centre, he's the second-line winger.
"You have to realize the position you're in," said Comrie. "On previous teams you just expect to go out first on the power play, you expect to be the guy the coach puts out in the last couple of minutes. But here we have so much depth and so many guys that can play different roles."
Five or six seasons ago it would have probably been an issue. But then again, this isn't the same Mike Comrie that broke in with the Oilers in 2000-01.
"We all grow up," said Comrie. "I'm not sure what you were doing when you were 20 years old, but for me, playing in my hometown was a bit challenging.
"But we all learn from our experiences and I'm happy where I am and just enjoying things right now."
Notes: Alfredsson and Dany Heatley were given Wednesday's practice off . . . Winger Patrick Eaves won't play in Game 5 on Wednesday, still recovering from the thundering check delivered by Armstrong in Game 3. "He's still a little ways away from coming back," said Murray. Winger Oleg Saprykin will once again take Eaves' spot on the fourth line . . . Spezza says the Sens must go for the jugular Wednesday. "We don't want to have to get back on the plane and go to Pittsburgh and give them a chance," said Spezza. "Their crowd there is pretty electric. When you got a team down, you have to try and take their will away from them early. The first period will be big, we have to make sure we come out strong."