Neil keeps up fighting spirit

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

ST. LOUIS -- With the colourful souvenir from his most recent battle protruding beneath his right eye, Chris Neil was cornered by two reporters who wanted to know why he's dropping the mitts so often.

"Who else is going to do it?" Neil responded with a glare. "Teams come in and they look down the (Senators) list, and they go, 'well, we've got Neil tonight'. It's nice having a couple of guys in your lineup that can do it. It takes some pressure off and lets you play a little more."

Having just participated in fight No. 13 of the season, the Senators' all-time penalty minutes leader hasn't scrapped this often since 2003-04, when he was in 24 fights. Consider also that he's missed seven games this season, and there's still 37 to go.

"I think almost every game this year I could have fought," he said. "People challenged me, except for one or two games ... It's part of the game and there's certain times you've got to do it."

But you'd appreciate a little assistance handling such dirty work from your teammates?

"It would definitely be nice," Neil said. "You look at other teams around the league, some have three guys."

With Brian McGrattan gone, Neil is the team's middleweight, heavyweight, every weight. Excluding Neil, the Senators have been in just nine fights, and that's counting three from Cody Bass, who is out for the season with a torn labrum. Rookie Jesse Winchester and Jarkko Ruutu have had two each, with Mike Fisher and Jason Smith having just one apiece.

With the way things are going, you'd think a few more guys might get mad, or try to stir something up?

NEED BETTER 'RESPONSE'

"He's a tough guy and he fought a tough guy," coach Craig Hartsburg said of Neil's marathon (1:12) punchup with the Devils' Dave Clarkson Tuesday. "We thought it would give our team some energy.

"On the bench, it seemed to be positive (but) I didn't see a lot from the shifts after. Most fights, guys stand up and bang the boards, but you want to see a response on the ice."

Neil is one of the few tough guys who could still play in the NHL if fighting was abolished. When he goes, he's not going for the good of his health.

"You try to go the net hard, crash the net, get pucks there ... that's part of the game our team hasn't been very good at this year," he said.

"As far as squaring off with a guy and dropping them, you've got to do it for a reason. Sticking up for a teammate, or whatever."

Neil is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, and indications are communication between his agent and GM Bryan Murray has been minimal. He's making $1.2 million US this season, and deserves at least double that.

If the Senators figure they simply can't afford to keep him, it's possible Neil could wind up on a playoff-bound team. For his part, Neil would rather he didn't get traded.

"I like to think that Ottawa wants me. I've been around here for a long time. My heart is with the organization, with the team. Every game you go out, you bleed for the Sens."

It's not about talent for the Senators. They have guys with an abundance of it. To turn their fortunes, they need some muscle. For both his heart and his knuckles, they need Chris Neil. And more like him.

Ice chips

As promised, Daniel Alfredsson wore the Team Canada jersey at yesterday's practice to pay off a world juniors bet with owner Eugene Melnyk. "There's a lot of pride in the Canada jersey, there's no question, there's a lot of history. But it doesn't feel like me," said Alfredsson, who won't back away from similar world junior wagers with his boss in the future ... A moment of levity was created by CTV Ottawa's Carolyn Waldo, whose question in a media scrum grilling of Jason Spezza was simple and straightforward. "What about the boos?" she asked the centre. Spezza was taken aback. "The what?" he said, laughing. "Sorry?" The Senators' boos/booze problem comes from fans they are driving to drink with their uninspired play. "You don't like getting booed, especially at home," Spezza said ... Hartsburg will give G Brian Elliott his seventh straight start tonight, then hand the reins to Alex Auld for tomorrow's game in Columbus.


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