They were clearly noticeable to all eyes on the practice ice Wednesday morning, lined up alongside each other again in their customary positions.
But the Ottawa Senators will have to settle, at best, for getting two-thirds of their No. 1 unit back together when they face the Florida Panthers on Thursday night at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., A-Channel, Team 1200).
Though he hasn’t made it official just yet, right winger Dany Heatley sounded like a man who’s all but ready to rejoin the lineup. He’s been sidelined since Jan. 12, when he suffered a separated shoulder during the second period of the Senators’ 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
While Heatley wants to wait until Thursday morning’s pre-game skate to determine his status, he answered “probably” when asked whether he felt good enough at practice today to make his much-anticipated return.
“It’s always tough sitting out and watching games,” said Heatley, who’s seen the Senators struggle through a 3-8-0 stretch in his absence. “It’s an important time of the year and I’m excited to get back in there.
“I’ve still been around this team pretty much on the road and at home, and I feel like I’m a part of (the slump) as well. I want to get back in and, like the rest of us, get out of this funk.”
Captain Daniel Alfredsson
(hip flexor), however, has put off his return to game action until at least Saturday, when the Senators play a rematch against the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Place that could determine whether they maintain their hold on top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Habs’ 4-3 win in Montreal on Tuesday night cut Ottawa’s current edge to a single point.
“It’s getting better. I’ve skated pretty hard the last three days, so it’s going well,” said Alfredsson. “But there’s still a bit of pain in certain movements I do, where I’m not totally comfortable yet.”
Still, seeing the big three practising together as a unit again gave everyone reason to smile. Especially on the heels of a strong third period Tuesday night in Montreal, when the Senators nearly roared all the way back from a three-goal deficit.
“Our effort last night, especially in the third period, is a little bit of something to build on,” said head coach John Paddock. “And (seeing Heatley and Alfredsson) out practising lifts everybody’s spirits.”
Nobody was smiling more than centre Jason Spezza
, who skated between familiar linemates again.
“We moved the puck around a little bit and made a few plays,” he said. “It’ll be fun playing with those guys (again) when they’re in the lineup.”
If Heatley does indeed suit up against the Panthers, he’ll have beaten the original prognosis for his recovery. He was expected to be out 4-6 weeks, but a return Thursday would beat the low end of that evaluation by two days.
Paddock called it a testament to Heatley’s desire to get back into the lineup.
“It’s a continuation of the improvement and strength and work ethic he’s shown since he came here (three years ago),” said Paddock. “To come back from that injury that quick shows the level of his conditioning, because the better condition you’re in, (the quicker) you can recover.
“He was shooting pucks in Tampa (on Jan. 24) when he wasn’t supposed to be and he was skating in three or four days. If he’s indeed back (Thursday), like we think possible, then he deserves to be back because he’s put the time into it.”
Heatley isn’t surprised he feels all but good to go so soon.
“It depends on the injury and it depends on how it reacts right away,” he said. “Every injury is different. (Mine) felt really good right away after the first couple of days, and we were able to do a lot of treatment and a lot of exercise on it right away.
“I think that’s the biggest reason (the recovery went so well).” Lineup notes
Keeping with his current “win-and-you-stay-in” system, Paddock announced Ray Emery will get the start against the Panthers … Forward Josh Hennessy has been re-assigned to Binghamton (AHL).