|Senators forward Jesse Winchester makes his season debut tonight when the Winnipeg Jets visit Scotiabank Place (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).
Opening night has finally arrived for Jesse Winchester. And none too soon.
Almost exactly one month to the day since he suffered a training camp shoulder injury, the hard-working forward makes his season debut tonight as the Senators face off against the Winnipeg Jets at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200).
For Winchester, who went down with what he called a "freak" injury on Sept. 18 — the first day of camp — this moment has been a long time in coming, to say the least.
"I'm excited to get back," he said following the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "You always hear guys talking about the first game of the year and how excited they are ... I'm hoping I can provide a spark.
"I'll just go out and do my job, have fun doing it and just get back into the mix."
For Winchester, it's been a long, frustrating wait to do exactly that. The toughest part, he admitted, is feeling disconnected from his teammates as they've struggled through a 1-5-0 start, unable to do anything to help stop the bleeding.
"It's tough," said the 28-year-old native of nearby Long Sault, Ont. "You lose a lot of the interaction with your buddies. That's the frustrating part.
"Even though losing sucks, you want to be a part of that with the guys and (help them) try to find a way out of it. So it's good to be back in the mix now and, hopefully, I can help the team win some games."
For Winchester, that means bringing a physical element to the game — he'll start tonight on a line alongside Stephane Da Costa and Erik Condra — though it'll take some time to get back into the flow of things.
"It's something I always love to do," he said. "Coming off an injury, you want to get back into that rhythm and from there, just keep it simple for the first little bit ... The way I play, you're going to get banged up every once in awhile. But (the injury) was totally a freak thing.
"Nevertheless, it did cost me some time and I'm just eager to get out there and play and have fun. That's how I'm going to feel tonight."
Winchester's return wasn't the only thing generating a buzz around the rink this morning. As the Senators met with the media, the visiting Jets prepared to hit the ice for their first pre-game skate in Ottawa since Nov. 22, 1995, when the Senators still called the Civic Centre home. Tonight marks the Scotiabank Place debut for a Winnipeg team.
"It's great that they're back," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, the only Senators player to ever face off against the original Winnipeg Jets, who relocated to Phoenix following the 1995-96 season. "The culture that's in Canada and in Winnipeg as well ... I've seen on TV the enthusiasm that they've brought to the city.
"I'm sure if you ask any player there about the difference between playing in Atlanta (where these Jets were formerly the Thrashers) and Winnipeg ... they'll tell you it's a lot more fun."
While he's more concerned at the moment about getting his own team on track, Senators head coach Paul MacLean — who spent the majority of his National Hockey League playing career in Winnipeg — couldn't help but smile when thinking about tonight's foe.
"I had seven years with the Winnipeg Jets and they were great ... the fans were tremendous to me," he said. "I'm really excited that they're back. That city has (NHL) hockey again. It's great that they're back in the league and it's evidenced by the crowds they're getting and the buzz in the city of Winnipeg. It's great for the league."
Around the boards
Goaltender Craig Anderson, who'll make the start tonight, says it's important that the Senators "stick with the program," regardless of their early season struggles. "We've put a system in place, we've got a long-term goal that we've put in place," he said. "We've got short-term goals to try to accomplish. Right now, it comes down to a simple one shift at a time and being there for guy next to you. Just battling for the guy next to you and making sure that, at the end of the day, you can look yourself in the mirror and say you were a good teammate and gave it your all" ... With Winchester and Sergei Gonchar back in the lineup tonight, that means Zenon Konopka and Brian Lee will be the healthy scratches ... Ondrej Pavelec makes the start in goal for the Jets.