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Michalek speeding toward stronger second half

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Nine months after undergoing major knee surgery, Senators forward Milan Michalek is finally starting to feel like his old self, with the all-important speed element back in his game (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
PHILADELPHIA — Milan Michalek is finally feeling the jump returning to his legs.

Not surprisingly, the speedy Ottawa Senators forward has seen his game elevate along with it.

And for a team in a seemingly constant struggle to put the puck in the net in recent weeks, it's welcome news indeed. Nobody, however, is happier than the 26-year-old Michalek, for whom speed is of the essence.

"Finally, I'm able to use my speed (again)," Michalek said with an eye toward Thursday's matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200). "If I don't use my speed, I'm not as good a player as I could be. So now I can use my speed and I feel comfortable doing it. I'm glad that's back and I feel good."

It has been a long road back, indeed, for Michalek since he underwent season-ending surgery last April to repair a torn ACL in left knee. While the native of Jindrichuv Hradec, Czech Republic, had recovered well enough to join his teammates for the start of training camp, the knee still didn't feel quite right and he missed four games at the beginning of November when it flared up.

But given the form he's shown in recent games, Michalek appears to finally moved beyond those early-season troubles. And it goes beyond the four points he's produced in the Senators' last four games. Last Friday against the Calgary Flames, Michalek flashed some of his trademark speed in driving to the net for a third-period goal. And Tuesday night, it was a clear factor in helping Michalek set the stage for Mike Fisher's second-period marker — the Senators' lone score in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

"That's easy. He's much healthier than he was a month ago," Senators head coach Cory Clouston said when asked about the upswing in Michalek's game of late. "He's gained his health back and now his conditioning has caught up to (be) where we need it to be. He's confidence in his leg is so much better than it was a month ago.

"He's playing by far his best hockey the last four or five games. He's skating (well). The tying goal (last night), he walked in, fought off a guy ... second effort got that puck to the net and Mike was able to put the rebound in. Those things, he wasn't able to do a month and a half ago."

Michalek admitted there was a point earlier this season when he wondered if he'd ever be able to regain the speed he needs to be an effective player.

"I was thinking about that a few months ago, that it wasn't back where it used to be," he said. "But I'm happy it''s back and, hopefully, I can start working out now so I can keep my legs going, too ... It was nice to get a rest (in November) and get it 100 per cent again."

Perhaps Michalek's tale can shine a positive light toward teammate Alex Kovalev, who had the same surgery last April but has had a flareup of his own in recent games. The 37-year-old Kovalev hasn't played since Jan. 8, missing the last five games, and isn't expected to be ready to face the Flyers.

"You take two steps forward and one step back," said Clouston. "We had to shut (Michalek) down for a week to 10 days because of his knee and we're seeing the same situation with Alex now. Even though some of these guys are in the lineup, they're fighting through rehabbing injuries. And it's easier said than done. It's easy to say 'this guy should be playing better,' but sometimes they aren't physically able to do so."

Around the boards

Centre Jason Spezza (shoulder) is progressing well in his own recovery from injury, buoying hopes that his return to the lineup might not be too far in the distance. "He's ahead of schedule, so that's a big positive," said Clouston. "Hopefully, sometime early after the all-star break, he'll be able to help us out. But we're going to be cautious in that regard." ... With the Senators face back-to-back games Thursday in Philadelphia and Friday at Scotiabank Place against the Montreal Canadiens (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), Clouston acknowledged he might turn to either Robin Lehner or Mike Brodeur for a start to give Brian Elliott a breather in goal. "We'll have to wait and see, but there's a possibility," he said.

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