Neil toughs out return

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

Chris Neil showed just how tough he really is last night. One week after his mother Bonnie died in a car crash, the rugged Senators winger returned to the lineup with a heavy heart and contributed significantly to his team's 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens at the Corel Centre.

Neil took 15 shifts, playing a total of 11:54. He threw a couple of big hits and added an assist on the game-winner.

"It was tough," Neil said, "but I got through it. Every game is going to get better and better."

Neil was a key to Ottawa's first goal, a power-play effort. In driving to the net, he attracted the attention of both Montreal defencemen, Craig Rivet and Francis Bouillon, allowing Jason Spezza an open lane and a free and clear shot.

The crowd roar went up a decibel or two when it was announced that Neil had earned an assist on the play.

"You have a lot on your mind, but for the most part I was able to stay pretty focused," he said. "The biggest thing was being able to come back and go through my routine, like always. The guys really helped me to keep my mind in the game.

"I've just got to get better focus, but it's going to come with time."

His mom would be proud.

Starts and Stops:

None of the Bouillons (27:01), Rivets (29:03) or (Mathieu) Dandenaults (28:44) we've ever heard of should get that much ice time -- unless it's a Thursday and they're playing in the Barrhaven Men's Over-35 League ... Dandenault likely would have been over 30 minutes had he not taken three minors. "These guys on a good night are tough to play against," Rivet said of the Senators. "When you're playing with just five 'D', including a young guy who traveled all day and got here three hours before the game ... those aren't excuses. For the most part, I thought we played a solid game. We never quit." ... While The Burn Unit chipped in with its offensive contributions (Spezza, goal and assist; Daniel Alfredsson, goal; Dany Heatley, assist) once again, the Senators newly formed Crash Line was the most physical forward combination on the night. Leading the way was a feisty Mike Fisher, who had a game-high seven hits playing for the first time with Vaclav Varada and Neil as his wingers. Fisher said trying to wear down the weakened Montreal defence was part of the plan. "That's the toughest part of the game," he said. "When they're trying to counter our speed and getting hit all the time, it makes it definitely harder on them." ... Rather than starting the Spezza line, Bryan Murray should have started the game with the Fisher unit, if only to give Senators fans the opportunity to show their support of Neil when his name was announced and his face plastered on the centre-ice screen .... Considering the 180-degree turn he made and the team he was facing -- and borrowing from the late, great Danny Gallivan -- you could say the Senators captain made an Alfredssonian Spinarama in netting his 20th of the season.

Punch Lines:

What did Radek Bonk do last night? Twenty-two shifts, 16:49 of ice time, two shots on goal, zero hits, 7-for-8 on faceoffs and still the former Senator is stuck on three assists (no goals) for the season. In other words, not much ... The Senators have now won more games in two months (19) than four Ottawa teams had over an entire season. The 1992-93 Senators (10), the 1993-94 team (14), the 1994-95 squad (nine in a 48-game shortened season) and the 1995-96 team (18). Yes, the current edition had a pretty good season this month (11-1) ... While the Habs were light on defence, goaltender Ray Emery was like a seventh blueliner for the Senators, particularly in the second period with the frequency in which he left his net to play the puck. If that's not a sign his confidence is growing, not sure what is.

Between Periods:

Jose Theodore said he tripped over a crack in the ice when he was backing up on Fisher's late game breakaway. "I think he was scared of my speed," Fisher joked ... Along with establishing a franchise-record crowd (19,858), the Senators gave away another big number in the 50/50 draw. Last night's winner walked home with $9,647 -- or enough to buy a really big tray of those really big beers at the Corel Centre ... MacKenzie Gifford, a novice goalie with the St. Laurent Scorpions, was pretty excited to find a Heatley card in the Upper Deck pack he picked up in the recently resurrected McDonalds promotion. He was also a little disappointed to find his hero wearing an Atlanta Thrashers jersey. With the cards coming out a full three months after Heatley was traded to Ottawa, Ronald isn't the only one who looks like a clown for failing to make an adjustment ... Sports Illustrated's NHL feature story this week is on Heatley. The combination of subject and author (the article is written by the brilliant Michael Farber) makes for a must read.

SOME THINGS WORTH NOTING...

GETTING DUMPED: Habs centre Jan Bulis fell head over heels for Ottawa bachelor Mike Fisher during a first-period collision in front of the Senators bench.

PUCK LUCK: While Ray Emery was solidly spectacular, he did receive some invisible help. Bulis failed to take advantage of an apparent miscommunication between Zdeno Chara and Chris Phillips, and convert an open-net opportunity in the first minute, and Alex Perezhogin slid a puck past an open net with less than five minutes to go in the game.

OTHER NUMBERS: Phillips and Chara led all players with a plus-2 rating ... Daniel Alfredsson was the game's top shooter, registering five ... Best drawman once again was rookie Chris Kelly, who won 7-of-9 faceoffs. Next best for Ottawa was Fisher, who won 6-of-11.


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