Senators' hit man steps up

Senators forward Chris Neil does things the right way -— with plenty of hard work. (TONY...

Senators forward Chris Neil does things the right way -— with plenty of hard work. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:56 PM ET

OTTAWA - In a rare occurrence, Chris Neil declined requests by the media to speak with him Wednesday.

Maybe he thought it was too early in the season to have to defend himself for nothing.

A number of times over the years, Neil has been asked to explain his abrasive, on-ice actions to reporters. But rarely, if ever, has he been called up on the carpet by the league’s disciplinarians.

It speaks volumes of the 32-year-old Senators winger that somebody who plays as hard and on the edge as he has the past decade has never been suspended.

It says he plays tough but clean. The way you’re supposed to play. He doesn’t slash, he doesn’t spear, he doesn’t kick, he doesn’t bite, he doesn’t gouge. If he has a score to settle or a message to send, he does it like a man.

He hits. Quite often, with his bare fists. But also with his shoulder or some other part of his upper body. And his timing is seldom off.

In any event, new NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan apparently didn’t see anything wrong with Neil’s bump into Maple Leafs winger Mikhail Grabovski Tuesday night, either. Maybe Neil stepped up a little, but not with intent to injure. Looked more like a keep-your-head-up warning, if anything.

There were cries from Toronto that demanded Neil get the book, or at least a couple of pages. But never should anybody be suspended for something so close to being incidental contact, and Shanahan either viewed it as such or thought that if Neil was guilty of anything, it was two minutes for interference. If the refs didn’t penalize him, Shanny obviously thought, then neither will the league.

Sorta refreshing, isn’t it?

“We haven’t seen any videos from Brendan, so I think we are all right,” coach Paul MacLean said Wednesday. “I mean, players collide on the ice all the time.”

Nobody intentionally collides with an opponent more often than Neil. When the Senators went to the Stanley Cup in 2006-07, Neil led the league in hits, with 288. In the four years since, he hasn’t pulled up at all, with 870 hits despite missing 52 games to injuries.

Finishing a check is an important part of the game. If a guy knows he’s going to get hit, he’s more apt to rush a pass, make a mistake. Neil has forced a lot of mistakes.

“He’s a good pro,” said MacLean. “In the Montreal game (Saturday), we came back and won because of his physical play.”

Neil also brings leadership qualities to the rink. He has worn the ‘A’ in pre-season games, and you don’t have to ask him to know that gives him a sense of pride. The only way the letter would look better on him is if it were sewn on permanently.

Neil is a guy that stated time and again he wanted to remain in Ottawa through the rebuild, even when the rumours abound that Vancouver was trying to acquire him in a trade.

“He’s always been in that leadership group (here),” said MacLean. “My expectation is for him to be in that group again, with the experience he brings to the group. He’s been great. My expectation was for him to come in, work hard in practice every day. Go to the net, go to the dirty areas that guys aren’t brave enough to go to. He has done it and he has been rewarded with points.”

All the rookies have watched him collect four of them, in four games.

“He shows that if you go to those spots consistently, you are going to have success,” MacLean continued. “Young players need to know that. They need to see it. It’s one thing for me to tell them. If they actually see someone doing it, it’s a better picture.”

Through the years, Neil has never been one of the most talented Senators. But while other tough guys around the league have been limited to fourth-line spot duty, he has continually picked up third-line minutes.

Why has Neil always had a regular shift? Part of it has to do with the fact he’s a good listener. In the early days, if you didn’t play Jacques Martin’s way, you didn’t play. Neil always played.

“He takes directions very well,” said MacLean. “He does what the coach wants him to do and he does it right. ”

As green as they are, there will be Senators who don’t yet scratch the surface of their potential this season, which will be hard to criticize, and there will also be those who underachieve, which will be easy to figure out.

But you know right now what you’re going to get from Neil, and that’s the same as always. He’ll be a stand-up guy, who always plays tough but clean. The way the game is supposed to be played.


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