If any team could overcome the loss of a two-time 50-goal scorer it figured to be the Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa Senators. Apparently, Dany Heatley is even more valuable than first thought.
The struggling Senators look to end a three-game losing streak Thursday night when they visit the resurgent Tampa Bay Lightning, a team Ottawa has failed to defeat this season.
When Heatley separated his right shoulder during a 3-2 victory over Detroit on Jan. 12, the Senators were seven points up on New Jersey and 10 on Montreal for the Eastern Conference lead, and challenging the Red Wings for the league's best record.
Without Heatley, who's expected to miss six weeks, Ottawa (30-15-4) has lost five of six while and scored 12 goals. The Devils have only made up two points on the Senators in that time, but Montreal is now just six points behind Ottawa for the top spot in the Northeast Division.
Before the injury to Heatley, who had 50 goals in each of the past two seasons, the Senators scored fewer than three goals only once in their previous 18 games, going 13-3-2 during that span.
Losing Heatley, who has 25 goals and 31 assists in 43 games this season, figured to be tough enough to overcome, but the Senators were also without leading scorer and captain Daniel Alfredsson for two games due to a hip injury. He returned Tuesday in a 5-3 loss at Florida.
"It's frustrating," said center Mike Fisher, who had a goal and two assists. "It seems like every little breakdown or mistake, it's in our net. Defensively, we're not solid at all. Not playing strong, making some bad decisions and getting beat."
Ray Emery finished with 35 saves, but gave up two goals on eight shots in the third period. He's 0-3-0 with a 3.65 goals-against average in his last four games.
"I thought we were really good for two periods and I thought Ray was good for two periods," coach John Paddock said. "In the third period we weren't very good and I didn't think he was very good."
Paddock still hasn't settled on a No. 1 goaltender as he continues to alternate between Emery and Martin Gerber.
With Heatley sidelined, the Senators need top center Jason Spezza to help fill the void. Spezza, though, has only one goal and three points in his last eight games.
Although they remain last in the East, the Lightning (20-24-5) have been much better lately, winning three straight by a combined 9-3.
Martin St. Louis had a goal and two assists as Tampa Bay ended a five-game home losing streak with a 4-3 victory over Edmonton on Tuesday.
The Lightning are only seven points behind first-place Carolina in the mediocre Southeast Division.
"It doesn't amaze me because it's been like that for the last two or three years," Lecavalier said. "There's a little more parity in the league. You've got to take it game by game and make sure we keep playing the way we are."
Goaltending has been an issue all season for the Lightning with Johan Holmqvist losing his starting job recently to Karri Ramo. Holmqvist, though, stopped 25 of 28 shots Tuesday after recording back-to-back shutouts for the first time in his career.
"Holmer's given us a chance to win every night," defenseman Shane O'Brien said. "It's no secret in this league you need to have good goaltending and Holmer's been great."
The Lightning are 2-0-1 this season against the Senators, including a 2-0 victory at Ottawa on Saturday during which Holmqvist made 25 saves.