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Neil pushing toward early return

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Chris Neil is itching to give the Ottawa Senators another dose of his robust style of play.

It can't come soon enough for the rugged forward, who's been sidelined since undergoing minor knee surgery on Nov. 21. But it's sounding more and more like Neil's wait will end on Saturday, when the Pittsburgh Penguins arrive at Scotiabank Place for a matinee affair (2 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

After pushing himself through a second full practice in the past three days at the Bell Sensplex, Neil all but declared himself good to go against the Penguins. Forward Ryan Shannon was returned to the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators earlier today, heightening that expectation.

"I was hoping to play (Wednesday against the Atlanta Thrashers) but I want to make sure," he said after today's on-ice workout. "The extra couple of days will help and I'll be good to go on Saturday."

Senators head coach Craig Hartsburg concurred with that assessment, saying "there is a pretty good chance that he'll be ready" for Saturday. He's already picturing a line combination of Neil, Jarkko Ruutu and Cody Bass "that could set a tone for our team physically."

When Neil first went under the knife, the prognosis called for a 2-to-3 week rehabilitation period. If he suits up Saturday, Neil will clearly be returning toward the short end of that scale.

"He's worked hard," said Hartsburg. "If the swelling is minimal right after (the surgery), then he can get to work on his rehab quickly and that's what happened. It'll be good to get him back to give us some more of that physical energy and physical play."

Neil, for his part, couldn't agree more.

"I heal pretty quickly," said Neil, who has missed six games since the injury. "I was thinking that when I (first) got hurt, to get back as quickly as possible. If I'm able to play, I can play. I think if it was playoffs the last game, I definitely would have played. The next couple of weeks for sure, there will be swelling and stuff but I just have to take care of it after games and practices. Hopefully, over the long term, it's going to heal up nice.

"I'm fortunate I'm able to come back as quick as I have and I feel pretty good."

That might sum up the sentiment of the entire team after Wednesday's 5-1 victory over the Thrashers. It was the Senators' largest goal outburst in more than five weeks, with the No. 1 line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley leading the charge in a dominant Ottawa performance from start to finish.

"The way it's been going lately, we've been playing pretty good hockey but we're just not scoring goals," said defenceman Brendan Bell, who chipped in a power-play goal against the Thrashers. "To see three go in during the first period is a good feeling and we know we're moving in the right direction."

Goaltender Alex Auld said it was important for the Senators to quickly put the disappointment of Saturday's 4-2 road loss to the New York Islanders behind them.

"I think that was one of the first times this year we were able to come back from a game we weren't happy with and play a strong game," said Auld, now 8-6-3 with a 1.96 goals-against average. "That's a big step for us but we have to keep it in perspective. We played well but at the same time, it's one game.

"We got off to a great start but I think the best thing was probably the way we responded from the game before."

Around the boards

In case anyone hasn't noticed, the Senators are now a perfect 3-0-0 in their black third jerseys this season. Well, some people have. "We know that," Alfredsson said with a knowing grin, adding he'd gladly keep donning the new duds for a while yet. They'll do it three more times this month, including Saturday against the Penguins ... Defenceman Alex Picard (wrist) didn't practise today and his status for the weekend is still in doubt. "We'll see how it feels tomorrow," said Hartsburg ... Centre Dean McAmmond skated on his own before practice today but is still on the mend from a serious throat infection ... Fewer than 800 tickets remain for Saturday's game, while 2,500 are left for Monday's visit by the Florida Panthers (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

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