Senators roster regaining health
Leclaire, Neil cleared to return to lineup against Penguins
|Senators goaltender Pascal Leclaire is eagerly anticipating his return to action after missing the previous 16 games because of injury. It's likely to happen Wednesday night, when Ottawa faces off against the Penguins in Pittsburgh (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
Although only half of it is actually official yet, the Senators will regain the services of goaltender Pascal Leclaire and rugged forward Chris Neil when they hit the ice against the Penguins on Wednesday night at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200).
It's Ottawa's final game before the two-day holiday break, and the return of Leclaire, in particular, has the Senators believing that Christmas has indeed arrived early. The team's No. 1 goaltender has been sidelined since Nov. 24 with a fractured cheekbone and is likely to earn the start against the Penguins, though head coach Cory Clouston – as is his custom – won't reveal that until game day.
"It’s a big boost for us," captain Daniel Alfredsson said after the Senators held their final pre-Christmas practice at Scotiabank Place earlier today. "(Leclaire) has had some unfortunate breaks, but it’s good to have him back. He’s probably really anxious to get back in there as well and it should give us a big boost."
Added Clouston: "We're excited about it. He was starting to play very well just before he got hurt."
Nobody, however, is more enthused about it all than Leclaire, who sat out 16 games while waiting for his cheekbone to heal. Needless to say, it figures to be the happiest of holiday seasons for him already.
He's expecting to need a few games to get acclimated to the speed and timing of game action again, but doubts it should take long.
"I’ve got to get used to that a little bit and it might take me a game or two to really feel normal," said Leclaire. "But I felt pretty good in practice the last few days and I’m looking forward to playing. It should be fun."
Neil's gritty, hard-nosed style of play should also be a welcome addition to the Ottawa lineup. He's been sidelined since Nov. 25 with a left knee injury and has been eagerly anticipating a return to game action.
"I hate watching games," said the eight-year Senators veteran. "I like to be out there contributing and I'm looking forward to getting back at it. I feel pretty good, so I (want to) get in there tomorrow night and get right back into action."
Clouston surely appreciates adding another solid contributor to a forward corps that still remains depleted by the injury absence of Jason Spezza, Nick Foligno and Shean Donovan. Spezza is likely gone until after the Olympic break, while the other two won't be back until at least early January.
Despite the rash of injuries, the Senators have managed to compile an 18-14-4 record that has them sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference. Last season, Ottawa needed 51 games – and two coaches – to hit the 18-win mark and by then, its playoff hopes were all but dead.
Forward Alex Kovalev believes once the Senators regain full health, they've got the horses to necessary to further solidify a post-season berth.
"It’s always good when you get more guys back," he said. "At this time of the year, you want to finish off the first half of the season in a playoff (position). That’s what we’re trying to achieve. You definitely don’t want to be somewhere in the back, in seventh or eighth place. You want to be in the middle of the group.
"We still have a lot of areas to improve but we’re definitely happy to have the injured guys back."
Around the boards
With Leclaire and Neil both now good to go, the Senators sent goaltender Mike Brodeur and forward Josh Hennessy back to their American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. ... Centre Mike Fisher and forward Milan Michalek were given the day off practice, but are expected to be in the lineup against the Penguins ... After the two-day Christmas break, the Senators return to action Saturday in Buffalo against the Sabres (7 p.m., no TV, Team 1200). Then a run of five straight home games begins on Monday with a visit by the Montreal Canadiens (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200).