The Ottawa Senators will receive a big boost tonight against the Phoenix Coyotes (7:30 p.m., Corel Centre) as captain Daniel Alfredsson will return to the lineup, just 11 days after breaking a rib in a match against the New York Islanders on Dec. 30, 2005.
"I've had five days of good practice in the gym and on the ice," Alfredsson said after Tuesday's pre-game skate. "I can do everything now that I want to be able to do in a game. There was no pain on the ice. I was happy how this progressed day by day."
Alfredsson will wear protective padding to cover the area where he was injured.
He's hoping his team can move back in the right direction tonight after they return home from a 1-3-0 road trip on Sunday.
"We're home in front of our fans to turn things around. This is a big game against Phoenix, who is fighting for a playoff spot. This will be a tough test. The main thing is to get this team back on track."
Coach Bryan Murray knows Alfredsson will help turn things around.
"He can put the puck in the net somewhat regularly, he's a hard worker and a leader."
And what does the coach expect from Phoenix tonight?
"They're a hard-working group. They're pretty physical. (Shane) Doan is a top-end player and they're coming off a loss so they will be trying to pay attention to all the details. I'm sure they will be a very, very competitive hockey team."
Tonight will mark Murray's first time matching wits with legendary player-turned-coach Wayne Gretzky.
"I like what Wayne said about the profession," Murray said. "He feels it's the next best thing to playing. I obviously feel the same way. I coached against him as a player and it was a challenge every night. I'm sure it will be the same with him as a coach. It's great to see a guy of his stature in this profession."
Gretzky will be returning to the Corel Centre's visitors bench for the first time since playing his last NHL game on Canadian soil on April 15, 1999. After the Coyotes practice Monday night, Gretzky was asked about his memories from that game.
"I think about it all the time. My last night (playing in Canada) was such an emotional night. Until that game, only my family knew (about his retirement plans). The ovation, that not only I got, but my whole family got, was incredible. It was always fun, even when I came here with the (Sault Ste. Marie) Greyhounds. Whether the people in Ottawa booed or cheered, it was a great hockey atmosphere."
Gretzky assessed his opponents for tonight.
"This is one of the elite teams in the NHL and they're tough at home. We have to be ready to play."
Spezza and Bochenski hope to join Alfredsson back in the lineup
While the news was good on the Alfredsson front, fans will have to wait a few more days to see Jason Spezza and Brandon Bochenski back on the ice.
Spezza is now targeting a return for Thursday evening against the San Jose Sharks.
"It felt good this morning and it's getting closer and closer," Spezza said on Tuesday. "I'm more than anxious to get back and I want to help. The most important thing is to be healthy though. It's a muscle strain and it's a process where you have to be patient."
Meanwhile, rookie Bochenski said he is circling Saturday's tilt in Edmonton as a possibility for his return from a separated shoulder injury.
"I feel ready to go now and could probably play tonight, but we're looking at Saturday," he said on Tuesday. "I took a few hits this morning and I could shoot well."
Bochenski said he feels in better shape than he did earlier this season. He said the Senators coaching staff, namely strength and conditioning coach Randy Lee, were instrumental in the quick turnaround after the injury.
"They worked me hard. Monday (his return to full practices) was pretty hard on my legs and lungs. The first two weeks I was in a brace, but once I got out of that we really moved forward."
Why let a good thing go to waste
The comical side of Dominik Hasek was displayed after the pre-game skate on Tuesday.
Hasek motioned to a scrum of reporters and cameramen to look in his direction after he broke one of his laces while untying his skates.
Hasek had worn the lace, which sported Tim Horton's logos, for over five months since receiving it from a friend last summer.
"If I like something, I stick with it till the very end," he joked.
Hasek later tied a small portion of the lace to a hook on his stall.