While the star winger is still piling up the points, it’s his play at both ends of the ice that has helped the Ottawa Senators re-emerge as a team to beat in the Eastern Conference despite its sub-par first half to the season.
“Because he scores a lot of goals, I think maybe people just look at him as being one-dimensional,” Senators centre Jason Spezza said Wednesday. “But he’s a little more of a complete player than people think.”
Heatley has points in 15 straight games – the second-longest streak in the league this season behind Colorado rookie Paul Stastny’s current 18-game run – heading into the Ottawa’s meeting with the New York Islanders on Thursday.
The 26-year-old’s 42 goals were also good for second in the league before Wednesday night’s play and, with a dozen games remaining, gave him an outside shot at reaching the magic 50 mark for a second straight year.
But with a defence that’s come under fire recently for blowing late-game leads, it’s his commitment to being more responsible with and without the puck that has his coach and teammates singing his praises.
“He came here as a goal-scorer and a very good hockey player, but now he’s an all-around hockey player,” Senators coach Bryan Murray said earlier this week.
The Senators sit fourth in the Eastern Conference and, with a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday, reached 40 wins for the fourth straight season and seventh time in eight campaigns.
Without Heatley – who’s played all of Ottawa’s 70 games, leads the team with 90 points and is a plus-26 – the Sens would likely be fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch instead.
“We’ve all learned to play the score better and I think he’s bought into that also,” Spezza said.
Since Heatley’s arrival in Ottawa following an Aug. 23, 2005, trade from the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for right-winger Marian Hossa and defenceman Greg de Vries, the Calgary product has managed an astonishing return of 92 goals in 152 games (he has yet to miss a game).
Maybe it’s because he’s had so much success in front of goal that his other abilities have been overlooked.
However, in the second half of the season, Heatley’s as likely to show up on replays for racing back into his own end to break up an odd-man rush as he is for firing off one of his one-timer cannons.
The Senators have picked up at least a point in 29 of 34 games as a result.
“I’ve always felt like I had the ability to do that, but you don’t get recognized for it or a different part of your game overshadows that,” Heatley said Wednesday.
When Ottawa struggled to play .500 hockey up until Christmas, Heatley was one of those feeling the most heat from fans and the media despite the fact he set franchise records last season capital with 50 goals and 103 points.
Ottawa’s season appeared to be in trouble when injuries cost them the services of key players such as Spezza and Mike Fisher for extended spells.
But, without his usual set-up man, Heatley formed a new line with Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Kelly and the Senators went on to win 11 of their next 14 games.
Heatley scored 10 times and set up 14 more goals in that run. More importantly, he helped the Senators shore up defensively by turning in a plus-17 rating and has continued that way since, even killing penalties in addition to his regular shift and power-play duties.
“As a scorer, you’re usually labelled as poor defensively, but I think this year I’ve definitely tried to be a little better in our own end – especially starting in January, where we had to,” Heatley said. “I like playing that way. It’s a lot of fun.”