Neil has the feel

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:47 PM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Lately, Chris Neil has packed a lot of punch ... scoring punch, that is.

Sitting in the corner of the Senators' dressing room yesterday at the Raleigh IceZone, a wide smile crossed Neil's face when the visitor asked him if he was going to score 40 goals this season?

"I don't think about that stuff," said Neil.

Teammate Mike Fisher just laughed out loud at the question. But the way Neil has played through the early part of the season is no joke: He has four goals and three assists in six games.

LOTS OF ICE TIME

How valuable has Neil become? Well, he had 16:08 of ice time, along with a goal and an assist in Friday's 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. That's more ice time than No. 2 centre Bryan Smolinski had.

"That's the most ice time I've ever gotten since I've been here," said Neil.

Why? Because he deserves it.

"Hasn't Chris Neil gotten better since the start of training camp?" coach Bryan Murray asked following the light workout.

"I believe that he's also skating a lot better and he's showing that he's got some skills, but you know that's what guys like him have to do right now if they want to be able to stay in this league.

"When I was Detroit, it was guys like (Steve) Yzerman and (Sergei) Fedorov who made the players around them better. Here, we've got guys like (Jason) Spezza, (Dany) Heatley and (Wade) Redden, guys who can move the puck and make practice better. A guy like Chris Neil realizes he has to play well if he wants to stay on this team."

Neil has confidence on his side and he has to keep it. He is skating better, and, on the power play, has been given the opportunity to go to the net with the purpose of creating traffic in front.

Playing on a line with Peter Schaefer on the left and Antoine Vermette in the middle, Neil has paid the price to go to the front of the net. He scored a goal Friday on Tampa's John Grahame by jumping on a rebound.

"I've always wanted to be able to contribute more here," said Neil. "I don't sit there at the start of the season and say to myself, 'Well, I'd like to score this many this year,' because that wouldn't be the right thing for me to do. I have to play my game.

"I still have to go out there and finish my checks and try to win the battles for the puck. It's great to be able to contribute this way. When you play four or five minutes a game, that can be tough because you're only getting about nine shifts."

STILLING WILLING TO FIGHT

That being said, Neil is willing to drop the gloves.

"If I see somebody taking liberties on our skill players, like Hal Gill did last week on (Martin Havlat), then I'm going to take care of business," said Neil.

"It's been tough this year because fighting is down and that instigator rule in the last five minutes (of the third period) has really changed the way you play," added Neil. "But if anybody hits (Daniel Alfredsson) or Havlat or any of our other skill players, I'm going to take note of it and then it's up to guys like me, (Zdeno Chara) and (Brian McGrattan) to take care of business."

bruce.garrioch@ott.sunpub.com


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