Sens' third line the charm

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:20 AM ET

In tinkering with his roster, Senators coach Cory Clouston appears to have uncovered one of the better third lines in the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL.

Especially the way it’s going now.

Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly and Chris Neil have accounted for at least one goal in each of the last six games, with the exclamation mark Sunday, when they combined for six points in the 7-4 win over Philadelphia.

Clouston has also had Jonathan Cheechoo playing with Ruutu and Kelly, but Neil appears to be the best fit. The three veterans have more than 20 seasons of NHL experience and possess the ingredients that should make for an effective unit in the playoffs.

“They’re fun to watch when they cycle the puck down low,” Clouston said after the Flyers game.

Despite a second-period hiccup, during which they committed a couple of turnovers, Clouston has referred to his third line as his most consistent.

“The consistent part has been the effort, and the momentum they generate for us,” he said Monday. “Fortunately, they’re starting to put some pucks in the net as well.”

At a career-best rate.

Ruutu has eight goals and eight assists, leaving him just two goals shy of his career mark set in 2005-06 and five points from the career-best total set last season.

Kelly has seven goals and 14 assists, putting him on pace to eclipse his best season of 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) that made him a favourite of then-coach Bryan Murray in the conference championship season of 2006-07.

And Neil, despite missing 14 games with injuries, has six goals and four assists (his career best was 16 goals, 17 assists in 2005-06), while also usually leading the way in physical contact. The most recent recipients of his rough rides are Chris Pronger, Jeff Carter and Matt Carle.

“That’s pretty good production for halfway through the season from your so-called third line,” said Clouston. “They play right. They play aggressive, they play physical. For the most part, they’re responsible defensively.

“The nice thing is we have no problem putting them out against the first or second line, on the road or at home, and know they’re going to do a good job.”

Kelly has worn the alternate captain’s ‘A’ since Daniel Alfredsson suffered an injury before Christmas. Asked to assess his season, the penalty-killing specialist chuckled.

“It’s only halfway done, there’s still a long ways to go,” Kelly said. “No, it’s been good. I think I’ve gelled well with the guys I’ve played with, and the team is having success. So far so good.”

Ruutu called Kelly an “all-round player” who can be trusted at both ends of the ice.

“The biggest thing for me is the chemistry, how we see the game,” said Ruutu. “Once you find something, it’s good.”

All on Leclaire

While his coach notes that Pascal Leclaire missed most of last season with an injury and was sidelined by misfortune for another six weeks this season, the goalie himself refuses to use excuses for his inconsistent play. “I’m not a big excuse guy,” said Leclaire. “If I’m healthy to play I owe it to my teammates to be ready to compete on a regular basis.” Leclaire’s goals against average ballooned to 2.95 while his save percentage dipped to an unflattering .891 when he was pulled after surrendering three goals on 10 shots Sunday. “He’ll be okay,” said Clouston. “He’ll be all right. Don’t worry about him.” Expect Leclaire to start Tuesday against the Bruins, with Tim Thomas working between the Boston pipes. Thomas, who has been dominant versus the Senators over his career, is 4-1 in his last five starts and 3-0 with a 1.90 GAA against Ottawa this season.

Ice chips

Ryan Shannon of Darien, Conn., picks the U.S. to beat Canada 4-3 in overtime of Tuesday’s world junior gold-medal game. Nick Foligno of Buffalo also thinks this could be the Americans’ year. “I find their speed is unbelievable,” he said. “It should be a great game to watch.” ... As of Monday, the Senators were 750 tickets shy of their sixth sellout of the season.

Injuries

Senators: C Jason Spezza (knee), after the Olympics; RW Daniel Alfredsson (shoulder), early February. Bruins: LW Milan Lucic (high ankle sprain), day-to-day; D Mark Stuart (broken sternum), 4-6 weeks.


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