When the Ottawa Senators hit the ice in Pittsburgh for a crucial showdown on Saturday afternoon, they’ll sport a different alignment up front.
And not all of it by choice.
Rugged winger Chris Neil
, who limped off the ice Thursday night with a right knee injury after delivering a first-period hit on a Columbus Blue Jackets player, won’t be in the lineup for Saturday’s game against the Penguins at Mellon Arena (3 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).
“We’re going to wait through the weekend until the swelling goes down,” Senators head coach John Paddock said Friday in assessing Neil’s status. “We’ll know more then.”
Centre Mike Fisher, who shares Neil’s relish for a physical style of play, said his absence leaves a significant hole in the Senators lineup.
“(Neil) obviously brings a lot of energy and physical play and is a big part of our team,” said Fisher. “You can’t replace a guy like that.”
Paddock agreed, calling Neil “an important player on the team.”
“You have to have that kind of element or player on your team,” he said. “Sometimes, you never have enough of it.”
Even before Neil was ruled out for Saturday’s game, Paddock had planned to shuffle the deck with his forward lines. With the No. 1 unit of Daniel Alfredsson
, Jason Spezza
and Dany Heatley struggling to produce goals in recent games, Paddock will split up the big three against the Penguins.
Based on what the Senators showed during practice Friday morning, Heatley is likely to wind up on a line with Fisher, while Alfredsson – who took a rest day – appears destined to line up alongside Spezza and Randy Robitaille.
“We expected it,” Spezza said of the impending shakeup. “We’ve struggled a bit as a line the last couple of games and haven’t been able to get rolling. John likes to shake things up when we’re struggling. Hopefully, it’ll get us all rolling and we’ll play together again sooner than we think.”
Back on Feb. 9, the trio produced all the goals and a whopping 16 points combined in a 6-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Place. But it’s been tough sledding ever since for the trio, who’ve watched the new combination of Chris Kelly, Antoine Vermette and Cory Stillman carry the bulk of the scoring load in recent games.
“We’ve become a one-line team again, only it’s not (the No. 1) line,” said Paddock. “We need to get some scoring from other people, and they haven’t been able to produce much.
“You can only go so long (before making changes).”
Heatley admitted the scoring struggles have been “frustrating” for all three linemates.
“There’s been some tight-checking games (lately) and we haven’t been able to get a lot going,” he said. “I guess (Paddock) feels a little change or mixing it up might do some good. That’s his call and it’s our job to make that work and try to win some games.
“Right now is a time when we haven’t been able to generate a lot of chances and the puck’s not bouncing the right way … It’s never fun, especially when we’re losing a lot of these games. Our job is to try to get out of this and do our job and try to help this team win.”
Added Spezza: “We’re not playing with confidence with the puck. All three of us seem like we’re not skating well and lacking a little bit in the energy department. It’s just a combination of things and we know we have to be better.”
Since the big Montreal win, the Senators have gone 1-2-2 and watched the Eastern Conference race tighten up significantly behind them. With 76 points, Ottawa holds a slim one-point edge over surging Pittsburgh, Montreal and the New Jersey Devils.
“We know it’s tight, for sure,” said Fisher. “We’ve got to keep getting points and finding ways to win. We can’t let up on any game now.”Lineup updates
Paddock announced Saturday morning that Ray Emery (11-10-4) will make his third straight start in goal and seventh in eight games ... With Neil out, rookie winger Nick Foligno
has been summoned for his fourth recall from the Binghamton Senators.