OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators took a beating in the previous Battle of Ontario and playoff positioning still on the line entering the final stretch of the regular season, they’ll add some muscle to avoid a repeat of their previous performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Rugged right-winger Chris Neil will make an earlier-than-expected return from a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee Saturday when the Senators host the Leafs at Scotiabank Place (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
Neil’s return after missing 13 games is a welcome one for Ottawa, which has lost three straight games to its bitter rivals – the most recent a 5-0 embarrassment on home ice Feb. 25 that the Senators would like to erase with a better performance Saturday.
“Anytime you play these guys, they’re big games and we didn’t have a very good showing last time against them,” said Senators centre Jason Spezza, who was rested for Friday’s practice but will be in the lineup against Toronto. “I think it makes you guard against taking them lightly and we’re not going to do that, they’re playing pretty well right now and with all the young guys in the lineup, they play pretty hard.
“It’s good for (Neil) to get some games in before the playoffs and for us to have his physical presence. He’s one of those guys that when (defencemen) go back to get the puck they think about him coming in on them, so it’s always nice to have those guys in the lineup.”
In Neil’s absence, the Senators, who trail the Montreal Canadiens by three points for first place in the Northeast Division, have often been accused of playing soft and without emotion. It’s a dimension the pesky forward expects to add for the final eight games of the regular season.
“He brings a lot of passion to the game,” centre Mike Fisher added. “He plays hard every night.
“You always know that he’s going to compete and play hard, which is something we need at this time of the year.”
Ottawa will be looking to erase some dubious history when it faces Toronto. The last time the Senators lost three straight games in the same regular season to the Leafs was back in ’92-’93, the club’s first season back in the NHL.
Neil was hurt against Columbus on Feb. 21 and was originally expected to miss at least five weeks. He’ll play on a line with Fisher and left-winger Cory Stillman. Forward Randy Robitaille is expected to sit out as a result of his return.
“It feels good to be able to get back in the lineup and hopefully come in and help contribute,” said Neil, who leads the Senators with 146 penalty minutes, 52 more than the next most-penalized Ottawa player, defenceman Mike Commodore.
In their past three meetings, the Leafs have won by scores of 3-0, 4-2 and 5-0. The last game, which came the night before the NHL’s trade deadline and ranks among the low points of a frustrating regular season for Ottawa, helped contribute to the dismissal of former coach John Paddock, who was fired two days later.
“I hope we remember (the last game) a little bit,” said Senators general manager and coach Bryan Murray, who took over for Paddock. “I think we just have to play Toronto like we play other teams now.
“We kind of were on our heels that night. I thought they played a real fine hockey game and we didn’t appear for the game. We’ll get ourselves going now. It’s an important stretch for every team in the league and certainly us.
“If you play with energy and discipline, then good things will start to happen. … We’re trying to keep up with Montreal and New Jersey (with the Devils for the Eastern Conference lead), I think that would be our goal here. Hopefully that will translate into a good hockey game.”
Ottawa is just 5-4-1 since Paddock’s firing but with four victories in their past five games they’re hoping to continue to show improvements against Toronto.
The Leafs went into their own big game against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night with three victories in its past four contests and were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, six points behind eight-place Philadelphia Flyers, who also played Friday.
In addition to helping its own cause, Ottawa can deal Toronto’s hopes a big blow.
“We haven’t come to play every night. We haven’t been consistent against them,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t matter who you play. If you don’t compete and play together as a team, you’re not going to win.
“We want to be playing the best we can going into the playoffs and we need every point we can get. They know that they’ve played us tough this year and had some good games against us so we can’t take them lightly by any means.”