No. 1 on hit parade

Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil (right), who shares the enforcer role with Brian McGrattan, is...

Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil (right), who shares the enforcer role with Brian McGrattan, is expanding his profile. (Ottawa Sun File/Sean Kilpatrick)

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

He has earned just one goal and one assist through seven games -- and now, also some heady praise from his coach.

On a team that boasts the likes of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden, caoch Bryan Murray insists that right winger Chris Neil has stood tallest.

"He certainly hasn't been recognized, but I think for the last three games, he's been our best forward, at least," Murray said after Saturday's 8-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils. "He's worked hard, his game has improved immensely over the two years I've been with him. It just seems to me he's getting better, more confident with the puck."

FIRST STAR

Of the 24 points racked up by Senators players in the breakout win, Neil had just one helper. Yet he was named the game's first star, and nobody would argue the selection.

In 16:47 of ice time, he exhibited his developing offensive skills while leading the team with six shots. But he was also playing his game.

The guy they call "Neiler" was doing some nailing, recording a whopping 11 hits. As a team, the Senators had 30. Of the rest, only Mike Fisher had as many as four. Chris Kelly and Brian McGrattan were next in line, with two each.

"If I'm not out there playing physical, doing my thing, I'm not that effective," said Neil. "But if I'm out there finishing checks, in players' faces, going to the net hard ... that's my job."

Neil, who shares the enforcer role with Brian McGrattan, is expanding his profile.

LEADS SENS IN PIMS

One of only two NHLers to score at least 15 goals and register at least 150 penalty minutes last season, he currently leads Ottawa in PIMs with 19 minutes and is tied for fourth on the team in shots at 17.

Neil is making smarter plays with the puck, more now than ever before.

"I just go out and try to work hard," he said. "After last year, Bryan told me he wanted me to work on my hands (in the off-season). I did stuff like that, and I think it's paid off. I'm playing with more confidence."

Neil, who married Caitlyn Sorenson on July 8, says spending the past two summers in Ottawa has helped his skills.

Instead of skating with junior players in or around his Markdale hometown, he's been playing shinny organized by Minnesota Wild (and former Senator) centre Todd White, in a group that includes other pros like Fisher, Dan McGillis, Adrian Aucoin, Zdeno Chara, Randy Robitaille, Pat Cavanagh and Fred Brathwaite.

'ALL ABOUT CONFIDENCE'

"It's a little different in summer hockey, there's no hitting out there," Neil said with a chuckle. "But it's all about confidence. You go out and you're playing with NHL guys in the summer time, and you're working on stuff. Your confidence gets a little better and you try to carry it on into the season.

"Confidence is a big thing. You've got to keep the puck going forward, but at the same time you can't be afraid to try things.

"Just to get out with the NHL-calibre guys, it makes you a better player."

On a line with Fisher and Antoine Vermette on Saturday, Neil was more than just a good forward. He was the Senators' best.

Lately, he's made a habit of it.


Videos

Photos