For all his rough and tumble moments, Chris Neil
never imagined it would ever happen to him this way.
That, on a seemingly innocent push up the ice, the rugged Ottawa Senators winger would tear the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, forcing him to be a spectator for nearly a month now.
Mind you, to hear him start describing the moment – which occurred during the Senators’ Feb. 21 home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets – it started out, at least, with the thought of being a typical Chris Neil
“I was licking my chops,” he said with a grin. “I was going to lay someone out with a big hit and he kind of sidestepped me right at the boards. I kind of swung off him and I went to push off and get back into the play. The way my blade hit the ice, it tweaked my knee.
“It’s just one of those things. It’s a fine line out there. The way I play, it’s kind of frustrating to have it happen like that. You’re running around and laying out bodies and you catch a guy or miss a guy and run into the boards and nothing happens to you. A little innocent play like that and you miss a bunch of games. It’s a weird game that way.”
The good news is, though, that Neil’s recovery appears right on schedule, if not even ahead of it. He is targeting the final week of the regular season – when the Senators play crucial divisional games against the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins – for his return. Perhaps even a bit sooner.
“When this happened, I was hoping to catch the last three games of the season. I don’t think that’s out of the question,” said Neil, who practised with the team Wednesday for the first time since the injury. “I don’t know for sure. But I think if I can be back for the last three games or even the last four or five games… as soon as I can get back, I’m going to be in there."
"I want to get back into the lineup and play as many games as I can possibly play," he added. "I can't stand being out. I'm a guy who likes being in the lineup. I like being a part of everything. That says a lot about my character."
Said head coach/general manager Bryan Murray: "He wanted to come out with the team (Wednesday). I told him to. He seemed to get through practice fine. We'll get him on the ice hopefully again for an extended period of time tomorrow. I'm hoping for next week."
For those opponents and whomever the Senators might face in the playoffs, the news isn’t so rosy. They’ll face a physical player who’ll be well-rested and primed to unleash the bruising, energy style of game that’s made him such a valuable contributor to the Senators’ success over the years.
“You’ll see a healthier Chris Neil
, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s a long season. You get banged up through the whole season and you get bumps and bruises. (The injury) has given my body a chance to rest everything and you know, I feel great.
“I wake up in the morning and (there’s) no aches and pains right now. You’re going to the gym and you get bigger and stronger. A lot of times, you don’t get a chance to do that during the season because it’s such a tight schedule. It’s an opportunity for me to get bigger and stronger and work on my cardio so that when I come back, I’ll be able to come in and be effective right away.”
Needless to say, the Senators will welcome all of that back for the post-season run this spring. And much as Neil wants to get a few games in before that big push begins, he knows being ready and able to contribute in the playoffs matters most of all.
“If (the knee) isn’t ready, then I won’t play,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. They want me healthy for the playoffs and ready to go for the playoffs.
“They’re very patient with their injured players here and it’s great. It gives the player the confidence that you know you’re going to be 100 per cent when you’re back.”