OTTAWA - The new-look Senators owe Chris Neil, one of the few old ones left.
Had it not been for a heroic performance by the veteran winger, who delivered big hits and a big goal, the Senators would have never stood a chance of escaping with a 4-3 shootout victory over the Wild on Tuesday.
Not only did Neil nail Public Enemy No. 1 Dany Heatley, the rugged winger also scored a big goal as Daniel Alfredsson beat Niklas Backstrom in the shootout to secure the first win of the season in front of 19,455 on opening night at Scotiabank Place.
Wingers Colin Greening and Nick Foligno also scored for the Senators, who had 44 shots. Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson and Devin Setoguchi replied for the Wild.
Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson stopped 24 shots to give coach Paul MacLean his first career victory as an NHL bench boss.
“We said from the opening day of camp we need our veteran players to be leaders out there and if we’re doing it right, then we can demand that our young guys do it right,” said Neil. “If we’re not, then we can’t hold them accountable. We were able to do that for almost a full 60 (minutes). We’re happy with the win because we worked hard and we deserved it.”
Neil was the straw that stirred the drink.
Down 3-1 in the third period, Neil brought the Senators to within a goal by scoring at 6:13, beating Backstrom top shelf. He also nailed Clayton Stoner in the second period with a thunderous check and sent Heatley to the ice in the third.
Neil denied he had a vendetta against Heatley.
“He’s a skilled player out there and you always want to be in a skilled player’s face,” said Neil. “You do whatever you can to try to get under his skin and if the hit is there you make it. We played him hard and didn’t give him too many opportunities.”
Greening tied it up at 8:22 of the third on the power play to send it to OT.
Foligno’s first of the season at 8:17 of the second to cut into Minnesota’s 2-0 lead came just after Neil left Stoner a little wobbly behind the Wild net.
Neil’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed.
“He had lots of energy,” said Anderson. “He’s the type of guy that we need energy from every night. He’s a guy that we rely on every night to bring it.
“That hit (on Stoner) just had a snowball effect and it just led to another one.”
There was plenty of concern for the Senators after they fell behind 2-0 in the first period on goals by Brodziak and Setoguchi. Sure, they had shown they could battle their way back in losses to Detroit and Toronto, but Backstrom looked unbeatable.
“We’ve been working hard and to get the first win feels good, especially (at home),” said Spezza. “We stuck to it when we got down 2-0. We were playing pretty good. We were carrying momentum. We collected ourselves and got back to work.”
It wasn’t a bad way for MacLean to secure a memorable victory. Asked if he knew anything about the Senators’ history in shootouts (they are tied with the Flyers for the fewest victories since it was instituted in 2005-06), MacLean smiled.
“I only know that we’re 1-0, we scored three goals in the shootout ... I think the history is good,” said MacLean.
Yup, good indeed, with a big thank-you to Neil.