OTTAWA – The Senators dodged a bullet Monday when an injury to top defenceman Anton Volchenkov suffered on the weekend turned out not to be serious.
Then Ottawa announced it added some ammo for the future by signing free-agent forward Bobby Butler, the leading goal scorer in NCAA Division I hockey this season.
“When I saw him play in the NCAA playoffs, he was a very good player, a very good college player,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said of the 22-year-old University of New Hampshire product, who notched 29 goals in 39 games for the Wildcats this year.
The Wildcats were eliminated from the NCAA playoffs Saturday and Butler, a right-winger from Marlborough, Mass., and a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player, was expected to join the Senators in Washington, where they play the Capitals on Tuesday night.
With a two-year, entry-level deal, Murray said Butler could get a couple of games in to gain some experience for down the road. Several teams were reportedly in the running for his services.
“He’ll need some time, but very definitely a guy that has the potential to be a goal-scorer in the National Hockey League,” Murray said.
Meanwhile, the Senators can breath easier over the status of Volchenkov, who left Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers after suffering an upper-body injury in a collision with teammate Andy Sutton.
The burly Russian didn’t practise Monday and is expected to sit out Tuesday’s game, but the injury isn’t believed to be anything that could keep him out of the lineup on a long-term basis.
“He shouldn’t be much longer than tomorrow night,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said.
That’s good news for Ottawa as it gears up for a return to the playoffs after missing out last year. It should help goaltender Brian Elliott, in particular.
The steady work of Volchenkov, one of the league’s top shot blockers and a fierce bodychecker, helped Elliott earn the NHL’s first star of the week Monday after backstopping the Senators to four straight wins, posting a pair of shutouts along the way.
“Any time your team does well, as a goaltender, you get recognition,” Elliott said of the honour. “But it goes both ways, too, so you try to keep it in perspective and hopefully keep this winning streak going.”
With Volchenkov out, defenceman Brian Lee was recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League on Monday.
Clouston also said left-winger Milan Michalek, who’s tied for the team lead in goals with 22, is nearing a return from a knee injury that’s kept him out of the last six games, along with defenceman Filip Kuba, who’s missed 12 of the past 13 contests with a lower-body injury.
All of the events mark an upswing in the fortunes of a team that stumbled coming out of the Olympic break and saw its once-comfortable hold on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference threatened after winning just once in nine games and losing five straight before its current run.
“The game is now about attitude and preparation,” said Murray. “Obviously, from the Olympic break, I think we had a little bit of a downturn. We had a couple of guys come back and not play with the same energy they had before the break
“Now … the focus has been there, the attitude has been there and the work ethic, obviously, has been there.”
The mood around the Senators was so upbeat Monday that even the usually staid Clouston was in a joking mood despite being accidentally run over during practice by right-winger Ryan Shannon, who has been a healthy scratch three of the past four games.
“It was a great hit. I didn’t think he was going to keep coming at me. He did. The little prick is pretty solid,” Clouston said of the right-winger, who’s generously listed a five-foot-nine, 171 pounds.
It was Murray who helped wake the Senators from their post-Olympic slumber.
Before last Monday’s game against at Montreal, where the Senators were facing a hot Canadiens team, he had a talk with players, including Elliott, about turning things around before the playoffs.
With just six games to go in the regular season, he’s hoping they’re heading in the right direction in time for the playoffs.
“I said all along, and I told the players this with the little get-together I had with them, that I feel we have a very good hockey team,” Murray said. “There are lots of things that have to happen and there are no guarantees, but, you get in, and you have a chance every night in the playoffs.
“We’re at that point where it’s just a matter of dropping the puck and playing and hope that things work real hard for us and real well for us and we’ll compete with anybody.”