Almost from the opening day of training camp, the Ottawa Senators have considered it one of their biggest strengths.
Now the team's forward depth is about to get its biggest test of the still-young season. The Senators won't have Alex Kovalev and Shean Donovan available for Saturday night's Northeast Division showdown with the Buffalo Sabres at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).
Kovalev, who has been a major force for the Senators over the last few games, headed home to Russia after Thursday night's 6-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to deal with the death of his mother-in-law. Donovan, meanwhile, suffered a serious right knee injury in a knee-on-knee collision with the Penguins' Matt Cooke and is expected to be out for an extended period of time.
"It looks pretty serious," admitted Senators head coach Cory Clouston after the Senators' practice earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "We should know by tomorrow whether it's real long term or (just) long term."
Kovalev could return in time to face the Washington Capitals on Monday night at Scotiabank Place but considering the circumstances, he'll be given all the time he needs away from the team. Clouston was impressed with the way the talented Russian performed against the Penguins, given what had to be weighing on his mind.
"The best-case scenario is that we could have him for Monday. Possibly that early," said Clouston. "We understand if it takes a little bit longer but he showed how he feels about the guys (by playing Thursday) and and how important it is (to him) to get back with the team.
"Last night was a perfect example that you can put other distractions aside and help the team win. It's bad timing (because of Donovan's injury) but there's never a good time when something like that happens and our condolences go out to his family. We want him back as soon as possible but we understand that family comes first."
While Donovan doesn't see a lot of minutes or contribute heavily in the offensive department, his energy is felt by his teammates whenever he's around them. That's what they'll miss the most if he's gone for an extended period of time.
"It's a tough one for him and the team," said defenceman Chris Phillips
, whose two-goal performance fuelled the third-period barrage that buried the Penguins. "He doesn't play a lot of minutes, but it's one of those roles that he fills very well with the energy he brings to the team every time he's out there."
Added Clouston: "Shean is a character. He's real good in the dressing room and the guys love him. He provides a spark during the games and the practices. He plays his role very well. But it also provides an opportunity for somebody else now. That's what we've been trying to preach all season and all summer, that we have to play as a team. It's not one or two guys. So we have other guys who can fill that role and what a great opportunity for them."
Clouston was referring to Peter Regin
and Ryan Shannon, both of whom have been healthy scratches for two straight games but will draw back into the lineup against the Sabres.
"They should maybe be a little bit hungrier," said Clouston. "Both of them have been talked to and they know what they have to do. It's a matter of going out there and playing the game, not worrying that this is do or die for them and they have one game to show themselves. Just go out there and play the game the way they know how."
And as Thursday's whipping of the Penguins showed, it'll take all hands on deck for the Senators to enjoy more success this season. Between Phillips and Carkner, the defence combined for half the goals in the game and Chris Kelly chipped in his first of the season.
"It's important," said Phillips. "Not just the defence (scoring goals) but up front, the depth guys, the defensive guys chipping in once in awhile. It really takes the load off the guys who are expected to do that every night.Around the boards
Defenceman Anton Volchenkov (right elbow) continues to push closer to a return to the Senators lineup. The big Russian blueliner began shooting pucks today for the first time since he suffered the injury Oct. 28 against the Florida Panthers. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow morning, but he's definitely made a progression in the last four or five days" ... Fewer than 3,000 tickets remain for Saturday's matchup with the Northeast Division-leading Sabres, while 3,500 are left for Monday's visit by Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200).