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Russian rookie answers Senators' call

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
The weather outside was frightful.

But at least one Ottawa Senators player’s mood was delightful as he pondered making his National Hockey League debut on a wintry Thursday night at Scotiabank Place.

And against two of his hockey idols, to boot.

“I’m very happy to come to Ottawa,” Russian rookie centre Alexander Nikulin said about making the leap, if only temporarily, from the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. “I want to try to help, of course, and try to do good things.”

Senators rookie Alexander Nikulin will make his NHL debut against two of his idols, Pittsburgh Penguins young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
The 22-year-old, whose English is still limited, spoke with the help of Senators defenceman Anton Volchenkov. But there was no mistaking the excitement in his eyes, or the words he uttered when asked to name a player he idolized while back in Moscow.

“(Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby,” said Nikulin, a fourth-round Senators pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft.

And wouldn’t you know it, Nikulin will line up against the two young Pittsburgh Penguins phenoms Thursday night (7:30 p.m., Sens TV, Team 1200), as the Senators attempt a quick rebound from Wednesday’s disappointing 4-2 loss to the Sabres in Buffalo.

But it wasn’t just the final result that was painful. Winger Patrick Eaves, who was one of the Senators’ top forwards on their three-game road trip, suffered a separated right shoulder and has been lost to the team indefinitely.

Head coach John Paddock didn’t even want to hazard a guess on how long Eaves might be out.

“It’s not a mild separation,” said Paddock. “We’re looking at quite a period of time (on the sidelines) here. How long, I have no idea. Not soon.

“We’re going to miss him. But we’ve had other players hurt before, so somebody else has to step up.”

That somebody, at least tonight, will be Nikulin, who Paddock said has been Binghamton’s “best player” so far this season.

“We’ll see what he brings,” said Paddock. “I don’t know where he’s going to slot in, but he’s a highly skilled guy with good speed. We’ll try to give him opportunities to succeed and see what he does best.”

The Senators might also be without centre Randy Robitaille for a second straight game. He suffered a bruised left hand on Monday night in Montreal, but remained hopeful it might feel strong enough for him to rejoin the lineup against the Penguins.

“You’ve got to be smart about injuries,” the Ottawa native said after Thursday’s optional pre-game skate. “It feels better than (Wednesday), but I think it’s going to be a game-time decision.

“(The injury affects) everything you do with the puck. It’s really tender, really sore. So I’m hoping that come game time, when the adrenalin is a little higher than it is in practice, that it takes some of the pain away. We’ll see come 7 p.m. or so.”

What’s on everyone’s mind, though, is avoiding the kind of start that buried the Senators in Buffalo. They dug themselves a 3-0 hole in the first period and couldn’t escape it.

“It wasn’t the start we wanted last night,” said goaltender Martin Gerber, who returns to the Senators net against the Penguins. “We really want to come out of the dressing room on a good note, and put everything out there.”

After rocketing out to a 13-1 start, the Senators have gone 3-3 in their last six games, and dropped two of three on the road trip. It’s a funk they want to halt soon.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” said centre Jason Spezza. “It wasn’t real easy to keep up the winning ways we had going … but we’re not making excuses. We expect to get back on the path that we’ve been on, and to win hockey games.”

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