The Senators made quick work of their opening-round opponent, disposing of the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, and more impressively they did so with a lessened contribution from Heatley – their best player during the regular season.
That could be a frightening proposition for the New Jersey Devils, who will face the Senators in the second round after eliminating the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 3-2 win Sunday.
“Dany was hurting a little bit. I don’t think there’s any secret in that and I think he’ll be better,” coach Bryan Murray said Sunday after Ottawa returned to practice from a two-day break. “A couple of days will really give him a little boost. He had the ankle issue, which was bothering him.
“I expect Dany will score easier. I thought he played hard, I thought he played decent for us, but he’ll get more points.
“I think he pressed a little bit early in the series and you could see that his skating wasn’t quite where it had been.”
Heatley still managed respectable numbers against the Penguins – two goals, both game-winners, and four points. However, it wasn’t the production expected from one of the league’s bona fide snipers, whose 50 goals during the regular season made him the first player to register at least 50 in back-to-back years since Pavel Bure did it in 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
One reason for that is that Heatley, like Penguins star Sidney Crosby who admitted Saturday he’d been playing the past month with a broken foot, hasn’t been 100 per cent healthy.
He is still bothered by a twisted ankle he suffered in a regular-season game against Boston in late March, although he dismissed any notion that it’s affecting his play.
“It wasn’t a huge problem in Round 1, it was just something that was a little tender, but two days off has really helped it so it should be no problem,” Heatley said.
The other reason is that Heatley, along with linemates Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, often went head-to-head against Pittsburgh’s top line of Crosby, who was usually flanked by Mark Recchi and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby managed three goals but Recchi and Malkin failed to score.
Heatley was credited with 310 shots, or 3.8 per game, in the regular season, the eighth-highest total in the league. In the playoffs, he’s had just 11 shots through the first five contests (2.2 per game). Four other Senators had as many, if not more.
“We wanted to shut down their top line a lot, too, and we probably didn’t take as many offensive chances as we normally would,” Spezza said. “Within the team game, we thought we were playing well.
“You know, it’s not all about numbers. Last year, we had great numbers in the playoffs and it was a disappointing playoff for us because the team didn’t win. If we win this year, it’s going to make us more successful than it does if we had 15 points or whatever after eight or nine games.”
But playing a more responsible defensive role is all part of the transformation Heatley made during the season, where he showed a previously unseen ability to play at both ends of the ice and he’s got no qualms with sacrificing scoring for team success.
“No, it’s not tough,” said Heatley, who also helped the Senators’ penalty-killing unit limit Pittsburgh’s vaunted power play throughout the series.
Still, if the Senators are to progress, they’ll likely need more from the 26-year-old.
When the Senators acquired him from the Atlanta Thrashers two summers ago, one of the players who went the other way in the deal – Marian Hossa – took his share of criticism in Ottawa, rightly or wrongly, for failing to produce in the playoffs.
Heatley, meanwhile, had never appeared in the playoffs until last year and, although he had 12 points in 10 games, he was among the players blamed for the team’s failure to get further than the second round. Critics will also point to the fact that all five of his career playoffs goals have come on the power play.
An encouraging sign for the Senators came in Game 5 on Wednesday. With the Penguins fighting to stave off elimination, the player who provided the knockout blow was Heatley, the same player who carried them at crucial times throughout the season.
“Through all the series, it’s going to be different guys stepping up,” Alfredsson said. “Him scoring a huge goal for us in Game 5 is going to help him and help us as well.”