With Jason Spezza due to return from injury against the Boston Bruins on Saturday, and with Mike Fisher to follow suit within the next week, the Senators’ woes revolve around trying to make all the pieces fit in a red-hot lineup that produced 11 victories in 14 games before the break.
“We’ve had some guys that weren’t getting very many minutes at the start of the year playing big minutes for us comfortably in bigger roles,” Senators goaltender Ray Emery said after practice Friday. “Then we have those guys who were injured and were used to playing a lot of minutes coming back.
“So we almost have too many guys to fill those big roles.”
It’s a problem the Senators will gladly deal with considering their early-season struggles.
Spezza had been one of their few bright spots with 44 points in 36 games before he suffered a knee injury Dec. 21 against Tampa Bay. Fisher, the team’s best two-way forward, went down two games later with a similar injury.
For a team struggling to stay above the .500 mark, the loss of those key contributors – as well as a subsequent five-game absence by forward Antoine Vermette – was expected to be the start of a slide.
Instead, the Senators stepped into high gear and likely saved their season.
“Anytime you go through adversity, it tests your character,” said right-winger Daniel Alfredsson. “It certainly did with our team and we came through.”
Alfredsson responded to early-season calls from some fans for him to relinquish his captaincy by contributing 24 points, including six winning goals, in the last 14 games.
General manager John Muckler acquired Mike Comrie from the Phoenix Coyotes on Jan. 3 to help out, and Comrie has four goals and eight points in nine games since his arrival.
Along with his play and the success of the unheralded Chris Kelly on the top line with Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, the Senators have so many bodies at centre with the return of Spezza and Fisher that Fisher will move to play on the wing when he does come back. He’s targeting a game next Saturday against Toronto for his return.
“It’s definitely going to give us more depth and it will make us that much better,” Alfredsson said. “It’s going to be competition for ice time and I think that’s healthy.”
Spezza is keen not to rock the boat by returning. He and Heatley won’t play together at first. When healthy, they’ve been linemates since Heatley joined the team before last season. Instead, Spezza will play with Vermette on his left wing and Patrick Eaves on his right.
“Hopefully we can get some chemistry fast and contribute,” said Spezza. “The guys are playing well and, as long as they keep playing well, I’m going to help.
“It’s not going to hurt (to have him back).”
With their injury troubles seemingly behind them, the Senators can now look ahead to making waves in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Ottawa has crept back into contention for a top-four spot. It trailed Montreal for second in the Northeast Division by a dozen points at the time of Spezza’s injury, but had cut the gap to one point by the all-star break.
“The way we have been playing the last month or so is something we can build on,” said defenceman Wade Redden, who appears to be over his own injury woes after missing 17 of the first 50 games with groin and chest problems. “We’re feeling good about ourselves. We’ve had a great stretch here.”