When Jason Spezza returns to the Senators lineup, he could very well find himself in unfamiliar surroundings.
Specifically, sidekick Dany Heatley might not be by his side.
In the wake of another exceptional outing from the recently formed Heatley-Chris Kelly-Daniel Alfredsson line, coach Bryan Murray conceded yesterday that what has been his most dynamic duo the past season and a half could be separated when Spezza returns from a knee injury, probably after the all-star break.
Of all the line tinkering Murray has done in the past, Heatley-Spezza has been his peanut butter and jam, the combination he's refused to pull apart.
"Are they going to play together? In all likelihood, at some point," Murray said after yesterday's tune-up for tonight's game against the visiting Boston Bruins (7:30 p.m.). "Next month? Possibly. But there are no guarantees.
"I think the (Heatley-Kelly-Alfredsson) threesome has really figured out how to play together. I guess it's called chemistry ... they're doing a good job together."
And others have followed suit.
STELLAR UNIT VS. FLYERS
The troops have rallied to win 6-of-8 games and take 13-of-16 points since Dec. 21 when they lost Spezza, their leading scorer at the time. The Heatley-Kelly-Alfredsson trio was formed Dec. 29, when Mike Fisher was also sidelined by a knee ailment, and in the six games since, Heatley has five goals and five assists, Kelly has two goals and four assists and Alfredsson has three of each.
The line carried the team Sunday, combining for eight points and a eye-catching plus-14 rating in a 6-1 romp over Philadelphia.
"It's been working pretty good," said Alfredsson. "The forecheck has been good ... it's led to our offence."
The hard work done by the three has also been infectious, as the Senators have basically forced their way into a tie for fifth place in the conference with an injury list that has also included Antoine Vermette.
Heatley has been the catalyst, playing a better all-round game than he has since coming to Ottawa before the start of last season. That's saying something, too, as in 2006-07 he became the first Senator to score 50 goals.
With Spezza's assist, of course.
"It's no secret I like playing with Spetz ... we work well together," said Heatley. "Hopefully, he'll get back soon.
"(But) if we keep rolling like we are, it's going to be tough to split (the current line) up. I've been with Spetz for a year and a half and I'd love to be back playing with him, but I like playing with the other two, too.
"The bottom line is, you've got to do what works."
0-3 VS. BRUINS
Meanwhile, nothing the Senators have done against the Bruins in 2006-07 has worked. Ottawa's has lost all three meetings, by scores of 2-1, 4-3 and 7-2.
The common dominator in each has been the brilliance of Boston goalie Tim Thomas. Not only has he stopped 95 of the 101 shots the Senators have fired his way this season, but he has extended a trend that began when he broke into the league. In seven games, Thomas has lost only once in regulation time loss against Ottawa, with a GAA of 2.12.
"He seems to have our number," said Kelly. "We just have to get more pucks at him and get some more traffic in front of him."
Said Murray: "Thomas has been really good against us, but I don't think it's magic at all. It just comes down to work and determination."