It's sooner rather than later after all for Chris Neil
The rugged Ottawa Senators winger, who's been sidelined since Feb. 21 with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee, is expected to be in the lineup Saturday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).
Neil skated on a line with Mike Fisher and Cory Stillman during practice Friday morning at the Bell Sensplex. Head coach/general manager Bryan Murray said "there's a real good chance" that's where he'll be when the Senators play the first of eight straight games against Northeast Division rivals to close out the regular season.
"If I can get 10-12 minutes out of him, I’d be happy the first game (back)," said Murray.
Given his energetic style of play, Neil will surely give the Senators a boost, no matter how much time he spends on the ice. He's missed 13 games since suffering the injury against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The original prognosis was for an absence of up to six weeks, but Neil will make his return just a few days past the four-week mark.
"I feel good out there. That’s the bottom line," he said. "(The Senators team) trainers figured I was ahead of schedule and I could kind of sense as well. I didn’t know how far ahead of schedule I was, but it feels good to get back in the lineup and hopefully come in and help contribute a bit."
He'll do it the only way he knows how.
"Just my physical presence," Neil said when asked what he'll bring to the lineup. "Guys on the other team know when I’m on the ice, (opposing defencemen) know when I’m on, especially forechecking against them. That’s my game. If I can’t come out and play my game, I’m not effective for the Ottawa Senators.
"For me to be back... I feel pretty good and I can play that style of game. My game doesn’t change, I go out, I play hard and finish my checks whenever I can."
Murray wouldn't expect anything less from someone he considers "an important player to our team."
"We know he’s a gritty kind of guy, a character guy, a hard-working guy," said Murray. "He brings plenty of emotion and character to our lineup. Every team in the league wants and needs that. That’s why Chris Neil
is valuable wherever he plays, whether it’s the third line or the second line or wherever it may be."
Added centre Jason Spezza
: "It’s good for him just to get some games in going into the playoffs and for us to have his physical presence. He’s one of those guys that when the D go back to get the puck, they think about him coming in on them. It’s nice to have those guys in the lineup."Around the boards
With Neil's return, Murray has chosen to reunite captain Daniel Alfredsson
with Spezza and Dany Heatley on the No. 1 line ... Martin Gerber (28-14-3) returns to the Senators net Saturday night for his 10th straight start ... Fewer than 250 tickets remain for the game.