It will be an emotionally inspired Ottawa Senators team that hits the ice at Scotiabank Place on Thursday night.
They’re back at home, eager to put the memory of back-to-back road losses to their two biggest Northeast Division rivals behind them. And best of all, the Senators will tangle with the Florida Panthers tonight (7:30 p.m., A-Channel, Team 1200) with two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley back in the lineup.
“It’s huge,” Senators centre Mike Fisher said of the return of Heatley, who’s missed the last 11 games with a separated right shoulder. “He’s scored a lot of key goals for us and it’s going to bring an emotional boost for us. It couldn’t come at a better time.”
The Senators went 3-8-0 in Heatley’s absence, with goal scoring at a premium during the slide that has cut their Eastern Conference and division lead over the Montreal Canadiens to a single point. Heatley isn’t promising he’ll remedy things with a hat trick or anything of the sort tonight, but he expects to make an immediate impact.
“(I just want) to do what I do, hopefully get some chances, shoot the puck a lot,” Heatley said after the Senators’ pre-game skate at Scotiabank Place. “The bottom line is, just do what it takes to help the team win a game.
“It hasn’t been that great around here the last couple of weeks. There’s been a lot of talk about (the team’s current slump) and I want to get back on the winning track.”
Head coach John Paddock doesn’t plan to break his star winger in slowly.
“I imagine it’ll be hard for me to play him less than 20 minutes (tonight), so he’ll get into the flow on a regular basis,” he said.
Nobody is more enthused about Heatley’s return than centre Jason Spezza
, who has worked magic with his right-hand man for more than two seasons now.
“We read off each other real well and play a lot of give-and-go,” said Spezza. “He’s a trigger man and it’s always nice to have a guy around that likes to one-time the puck when you make plays.”
Spezza’s predicament was compounded further when captain Daniel Alfredsson
– who won’t play tonight – also went to the sidelines last week with a sore hip flexor. That left him playing with a variety of new linemates who weren’t familiar with his style of play.
“(Heatley) does a good job of getting open for me, too,” said Spezza. “Then I (was) playing with guys I haven’t been playing with and it’s a little different game.
“It puts everybody in a tough situation if you don’t click right away.”
Added Paddock: “You can’t change a (player) into a goal-scorer. Somebody else could go play with (Spezza), but you can’t become a goal-scorer all of a sudden… you think you build your team through the middle, but we’ve really missed (Heatley). Probably more than you would hypothetically imagine.”
Heatley, who’d racked up 25 goals and 31 assists before suffering his injury in a Jan. 12 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, will line up alongside Spezza and Randy Robitaille tonight (mp3 file)
. Together, they’ll be a key to the Senators rebounding from consecutive road losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs (4-2 Saturday) and Montreal Canadiens (4-3 Tuesday).
The Senators are hoping to build off a strong third period in Montreal, when they nearly made it all the way back from a 4-1 hole. Especially with the Canadiens now breathing down their necks and a rematch with them set for Saturday at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) on Hockey Day in Canada.
“We know the lead is tight here,” said Fisher. “We’ve got to do what we can to play desperate and start playing with a little more emotion. We felt we did the last game for the most part and if we continue to do that, we’ll get things turned around.
“We’re not worried about that.”
Alfredsson remains hopeful he’ll be in the lineup against the Habs (mp3 file)
“I’m hoping for Saturday, but I’m not going to promise anything,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Ray Emery (8-8-3) makes the start in goal tonight for the Senators.